Seth Moulton isn’t running for president — yet. But the Massachusetts congressman is joining a growing chorus of Democrats who believe that his party should try to beat President Trump in 2020 on national security.
“I recognize that the polling doesn’t have national security as a top issue right now, but it’s not just the right thing to do for the country with this reckless commander in chief — it’s also a political opportunity for Democrats,” Moulton said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, “because the Republicans have given us an unbelievable opening with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.”
Public polling has long ranked Republicans as “better” at national security. In February, according to a two-year polling project by the national security blog Lawfare, the difference between average confidence in Republicans and Democrats grew to its largest gap.
But some Democrats are betting that confidence in Republicans is not the same as confidence in Trump. As a swirl of chaotic controversy has continued to surround Trump’s foreign policy, narrow majorities say they have little or no confidence in the president to use military force wisely or handle an international crisis, according to a January Pew poll.
Senior voices in the Democratic party have begun to take note. In a December op-ed titled “Democrats Need to Start Talking About National Security,” former Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, Va., who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, warned that his party is “curiously absent on national security messaging.”
“When asked which party more reliably can keep America safe, even the Democratic-leaning Virginia electorate gives Republicans a 7-point edge,” Kaine wrote. “We should speak up and speak out on behalf of strengthening security, supporting our troops and veterans and restoring robust diplomacy and alliances to keep us safe.”
Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq before beating an incumbent to be elected to Congress in 2014, is weighing a bid for the presidency that in no small part is built on that philosophy.
In a crowded early field of 2020 possibilities — few of whom have substantive experience in foreign policy — it’s an issue that could split contenders as ideologically diverse as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and former Vice President Joe Biden. So far, that cleavage has been around the issue of U.S. interventionism abroad, with more progressive party members like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, raising questions about the value of a variety of American engagements overseas. Trump’s bid to end what he calls America’s “forever wars” has earned praise from strict non-interventionists like Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who is not running for president, but has become an increasingly prominent Democratic voice on foreign policy.
Moulton has been outspoken on the need for Congress to reassert its war-making powers — three administrations have now controversially operated on the same post-9/11 congressional authorization to prosecute the so-called “war on terror” — but asked if Democratic voters will make a litmus test out of bringing troops home from Afghanistan, Moulton said he “hoped not.” The U.S. should have a clearer plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan, he argued, in order to avoid making the same mistake of Washington’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq that some analysts say permitted the rise of ISIS.
“You won’t find a stronger advocate for the role of Congress in deciding when we put our men and women into combat. You won’t find a stronger advocate for having very clear missions and an end-game that troops know they can achieve to get home,” he said. “But you also won’t find a stronger advocate for making clear to the rest of the world that America is a strong country and we will stand up for our national interests and our allies around the globe.”
The U.S. “should always be extremely reluctant to intervene,” he said, but “but it must be an option that’s on the table and the entire world needs to know that we are willing to use that option.”
Moulton is often called a social progressive, but some of his views are less aligned with the new progressive wing of the party. Around 2015, when the Pentagon was debating opening combat roles in the Marines to women, Moulton had a series of contentious lunch meetings with former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus over the issue. Moulton served in the same small, elite unit in Iraq under Gen. David Patraeus with a woman — Ann Fox, now CEO of a Texas energy company — whom he says made them more combat effective, in part because she could speak to the women in Iraq’s conservative social culture. But he stops short of a full-throated embrace of women serving in Marine combat roles.
“This is a serious business where lives are on the line. If having women in these combat units makes them more combat effective, then it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But that’s the question that the Marine Corps and the Army are still trying to answer.”
If he does announce a bid, Moulton’s path to the White House is murky at best. He earned enemies in high places with an insurgent bid to topple Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as speaker of the House after the 2018 midterms. Moulton often says that he feels compelled to serve — his decision about the presidential race, he said, “just comes back to this fundamental question of how best can I serve the country” — and some longtime Democratic operatives and House aides are quick to describe that insistence as insincere. Still, he has also gained accolades from prominent military figures, like retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Security remains a potent issue for voters broadly, although there is a stiff partisan divide with Republicans ranking terrorism far higher than Democrats. Just over 50 percent of Democrats ranked defending the country from future terror attacks as a top priority in 2019, and the overall percentage who rank it as a top priority, at 67 percent, is one of the lowest shares citing the issue since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Pew.
Ultimately, Moulton’s tough-on-national-security pitch may not be sufficient to set him apart from the crowded primary field, all of whom will likely be running in opposition to Trump’s foreign policy in one way or another.
“We have the most reckless commander in chief in American history and we owe a response to that from the Democratic party,” Moulton said. “It’s time for Democrats to lead on national security.”