Rep. Seth Moulton thinks voters know Donald Trump is an “asshole” — but he says Democrats are wasting their time launching a “moral crusade” against the president.
Moulton is polling at the back of the pack seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and he didn’t make it on the stage for the first primary debate last month. But from his perspective, his party is overestimating its chances at beating Trump in 2020, Moulton said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO reporters and editors.
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The Democratic front-runners are too focused on convincing Americans of Trump’s failings, Moulton said, and are not presenting a vision of the country that can win over people who supported the president in 2016.
“I think a lot of Democrats think, ‘You know, these Trump voters, what we need to do is we just need to educate them, and we’re going to get it through their heads that this guy is a bad guy,’” Moulton said. “Okay, Trump voters are not idiots. We don’t need to give America a moral education; they know that he’s an asshole. They get it. They’ve just baked that in.”
“When we’re trying to win over Trump voters in the general election, we can’t go on this moral crusade because people are like, ‘Give me a break,’” he said. “What they’re really saying is, ‘I get it, I get this guy is immoral. I’m voting for him anyway because you don’t give me a better alternative.’”
“There’s a real arrogance among a lot of Democrats in thinking that all these people are stupid policy-wise and stupid moral-wise,” he said in an interview conducted as part of a recurring POLITICO series with 2020 candidates.
The three-term Massachusetts congressman argued that he had a vision to take on Trump “in a way that doesn’t alienate his voters.” Moulton — who perhaps is best-known for helping lead a failed rebellion against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year — was deeply critical of the leftward drift of the party on everything from health care to immigration.
“We have to have a pro-jobs, pro-growth kind of agenda, and not just a redistributive of agenda,” he said.
Moulton said that while he supports the principle behind ideas such as a wealth tax — which Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed to pay for programs such as student debt relief — they won’t work. Instead, he says Democrats’ economic agenda should focus on making sure everyone pays their “fair share,” fully funding the IRS so it can audit wealthy people and taxing long-term capital gains the same as income. He said companies such as Amazon, which he called out by name, should pay more in federal taxes.
He also said Democrats were not presenting a cohesive national security argument to counter Trump.
“Fundamentally, he is not keeping us safe. There’s a real case for dereliction of duty as commander in chief,” he said. Moulton ticked off several areas of criticism, from Trump’s unwillingness to confront Russia, the confusing state of his relations with North Korea, and his lack of a strong national cybersecurity initiative, especially in relation to China.
Beyond believing he can appeal to Trump’s voters, Moulton also views his own background as a Marine Corps veteran as a clear contrast with Trump, who he called a “draft-dodger.”
Moulton said his experience in the Marines inspired him to run for elected office, and he emphasizes that background frequently on the campaign trail. He uses his experience with Veterans Affairs health care to criticize Democratic plans that would eliminate private insurance. And he disclosed recently that he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder following his combat deployments during the Iraq War.
“I decided that it’s not leadership by example if I’m out there talking about taking care of our troops, talking about addressing mental health and fighting for these things in Congress, and just don’t share my story,” he said Thursday. Moulton said since he began talking about his PTSD, veterans and non-veterans alike have reached out to share their stories about mental health issues.
“The reason I haven’t done this until now was because I was scared of the political consequences; I didn’t have the courage,” he said. He said he was inspired to come forward by young veterans, including those he served with, who shared their stories first.
He is struggling to get his story out on a national scale, though, and he almost assuredly won’t be on stage at the next round of debates at the end of the month.
To qualify for those early debates, candidates need to either collect donations from 65,000 Americans or hit 1 percent in three polls from a list approved by the Democratic National Committee. Moulton has done neither, even though outsider candidates like spiritual guru Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have long since qualified.
Moulton was critical of the DNC’s debate rules, noting they left him and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — the only Democratic governor of a state Trump won in 2016 in the race — off the stage in June. He took issue with the polls the DNC counts toward qualifying and said the donor requirement favors more liberal candidates.
“The idea of grassroots donors is a great idea in principle, but it’s all the people on the extremes who respond to the flashing lights emails” seeking donations, Moulton said. “If that’s one of your primary requirements here, you’re immediately favoring those types of candidates.”
Moulton said he would keep running even if he didn’t make the July debate, noting that “we’re not voting until February.” But it was not clear how he planned to break through without that national exposure.
He said he and staff are looking at running an “insurgent” campaign, but they haven’t drawn up a plan on how to do that yet.
“As long as I think I can win, I’m going to stay in the race,” Moulton said. “If I get to a point where I say, ‘You know what, I still think I might be the best nominee, but it’s not going to happen’ … then I think I have a moral obligation to get out.”
He said he sees a path to the White House, but he has a back-up plan, too: Moulton is still running for re-election to his House seat in Massachusetts, where he’s stacking up primary challengers. One said when she launched her campaign that Moulton had “moved on from the district.”
Moulton said he was serving his constituents in Massachusetts by seeking the presidency — but he knows his odds of making it to the White House are low.
“I can do math,” he said, “and I understand the statistical probability here.”