Democrats want new leadership but need someone tough enough to take on Trump: Seth Moulton
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Democratic presidential candidate, on health care, PTSD and the "software update" America needs to succeed. USA TODAY
Seth Moulton was elected to the U.S. House from Massachusetts after serving four tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer. He announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in April and failed to qualify for last month’s debates in Miami. In a meeting with USA TODAY’s Editorial Board, the 40-year-old Harvard graduate discussed how he believes that his military service has prepared him for the White House, how he battled post-traumatic stress disorder and how he thinks his party will need a broad coalition to defeat President Donald Trump. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:
Q. Why are you running?
A. I would not be here as a member of Congress or running for president if not for my time in the Marines. I felt like I saw the consequences of failed leadership in Washington, and I saw them in very personal and human terms in Iraq. There was even a day in 2004 when a young Marine in my platoon said, "You know, sir, you ought to run for Congress someday so that this s--t doesn't happen again."
Q. How does your military experience apply to politics?
A. My fundamental job as a platoon commander on the ground leading troops in combat was to bring together this remarkably diverse group of Americans from all over the country with different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, and get them all united behind a common mission to serve America in the midst of a very divided environment, in midst of a war that I was an outspoken critic of. In a lot of ways, I think that is exactly the kind of leadership we need from our nominee and from the next president of the United States during a very divided time in American history.
Q. What will it take to beat President Trump?
A. We can't win this race if we don't bring together a pretty diverse coalition. It's got to include everybody in the Democratic Party plus independents and even some disaffected Republicans. Donald Trump is going to be harder to beat than a lot of Americans think.
Q. You didn’t even qualify for the first Democratic debate in June.
A. I know I got in (the race) late. I know I'm relatively little known compared to the other candidates. But the response I'm getting from people on the ground has been incredibly positive, because Democrats want a new generation of leadership. They want a next generation leader to meet a new generation of challenges in this country, but they need someone who's tough enough to take on Trump. … If I thought that there was a better nominee out there to run, I would just support him or her.
Q. Did the first debate send a message that would appeal to a diverse coalition?
A. To be honest, not really. The party is moving strongly to the left, and I think that if we nominate someone who represents that part of the party, it's just going to be harder to win. It's gonna be a lot harder to win. I also think that there was a lot of rehashing of things from the past. If we spend our time rehashing votes from before I was even born, that's not a way to move the country forward. I also was disappointed that no one out there was taking on Donald Trump on national security. If Democrats don't have a clear national security strategy, a way to make this country safer and stronger, then that's a bad recipe for winning a general election.
Q. How do you see the divisions in the Democratic Party?
A. There are candidates who say, look, Trump's screwed everything up and we just need to go back to the way things were. And then there are other people who say we need to completely upend the system and remake America from its foundations. And I don't think either is right. You know, I think that this is a great country. But, you know, we need an update. It's like we're a country that's running on Windows 95 and everyone knows that we need to update the software here, folks.
Q. With the economy doing well, can Democrats run on that issue?
A. I think we have to take on Trump on the economy. Yes, this (economy) is great for hedge fund managers, great for Wall Street, but a lot of people are being left out. I just released my tax plan earlier this week, which I call A Chance to Succeed, which talks about leveling the playing field between the money managers and the people who are working hard jobs every day.
Q. Should President Trump be impeached?
A. I voted to start impeachment proceedings way back in December of 2017. The president broke the law, and we should be having this debate. I certainly respect people like (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi and others who are on the opposite side of that view. But, the bottom line is, how about just doing the right thing by the Constitution?
Q. So is Speaker Pelosi doing the nation a disservice by standing in the way of impeachment proceedings?
A. She's doing what she thinks is the right thing for the party and for our electoral prospects in 2020. I just have a different view, which is that I didn't swear an oath to the Democratic Party; I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.
Q. Where do you stand on the question of reparations for slavery?
A. We should have this debate. You know, the basis of reparations is repair. And so, we should be looking at the legacy of not only slave holding but reconstruction, and really take responsibility, not for what happened in the sense that it's our generation's fault, but it's our generation's opportunity to fix it once and for all. I've been, even just back in Massachusetts, a huge advocate for eliminating some of the zoning restrictions that really have their basis in racism and prevent access to housing. And I also think there's a much broader agenda that we need to pursue for black Americans who have been consistently disenfranchised from our voting process.
Q. How about marijuana legalization?
A. I’ve been a leading advocate in Massachusetts for marijuana legalization and expunging records for minor drug crimes. I took that position when almost everyone else in the delegation was against it. I was supportive of it, partly because I just think it's the right thing to do, and there's no question that black Americans have been disproportionately punished for this. I mean look, I smoked weed in college and I didn't get caught, but if I had, I'd probably still be sitting here. I mean I even declared it on my forms for joining the Marines. No consequences.
Q. How would you grade the administration's response to the opioid crisis?
A. Have they done anything useful? I mean it's an F. But it's also partly reflective of Congress' response. We talk a really good game about being bipartisan and passing a bunch of authorization bills for opioid programs, and then we never fund them.
Q. What do you think of harm reduction strategies, such as establishing sites where people addicted to drugs can shoot up in a secure environment?
A. I don't love the idea of safe injection sites because I'd rather people are not using, are just not injecting anything. But if you have to inject, do it safely. We pride ourselves on believing in facts and believing in science, and then we sometimes set aside those things when we come to a particular issue like nuclear power, for example, where we don't like where the facts lead us.
Q. You courageously came out about your post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq. What is your current situation with PTSD? Do you suffer symptoms right now?
A. No I don't, because I was able to go to therapy and get help. I still see my therapist on occasion just to check in, because I think that's a responsible thing. Frankly, I think everybody in America should see a therapist on a regular occasion, just like you get a physical. You don't just go to a physical when you're sick. You get a checkup.
Q. Would you pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan?
A. Let me be 100% clear. Here's what I think we should do. We should end the war in Afghanistan insofar it's a war.
Q. What does that mean exactly?
A. It means pull out the majority of troops. We do have to have a continued counterterror presence there. But I don't think our continued counterterror presence in Afghanistan should be any different than our counterterror presence in places like the Philippines.
Q. How about national security more broadly?
A. The most frightening day that I've ever had as a member of Congress was the afternoon that I spent riding around in the “doomsday plane” with a small group from the Armed Services Committee. And at one point an Air Force colonel said, as we were asking all these different questions about the safety of it, "You know, sir, the system is basically foolproof." And I said to myself, "Yeah, unless the guy at the top is a fool." That might sound too alarmist for some, but those are the stakes in this election.