A Democrat Fights His Own Party as Well as Trump
(Bloomberg View) -- Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has become a prominent face of a new generation of Democratic politicians, a number of them military veterans.
Elected just three years ago in an upset of an entrenched incumbent, the 39-year-old congressman is scathing in his dismissal of President Donald Trump as a "lying draft dodger" who is "unfit for office." Yet he is also outspoken in criticizing his party's older congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi.
As a highly decorated marine who served four tours in Iraq and has three degrees from Harvard, he has the passionate support of military figures like Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. John Nagl, the retired Army officer who served both Petraeus and James Mattis (now defense secretary), as counterinsurgency expert, said Moulton's leadership is "deeply inspirational for a nation in turmoil."
But critics, including the old-guard Democrats he has challenged, claim he is consumed by ambition.
I asked Moulton about all this in an interview (which has been condensed and lightly edited):
Hunt: Other than younger leadership, what substantive changes do the Democrats need?
Moulton: If there’s one lesson from 2016, it’s that people are sick and tired of the status quo. We’ve become a party that is very good at complaining about Republicans, telling America what Trump is not doing, or the terrible things he is doing. We need to show our vision for the country, our way forward.
Q: Let’s talk about tax reform. Should there be steeper taxes on wealthier people? Should corporate taxes be reduced? Is it OK to give the middle-class a tax cut if it increases the deficit?
Moulton: Democrats have consistently been the party that supports small businesses to drive the new economy forward. That’s where innovation comes from. And yet, the Republican plan will cut all corporate taxes, which means that the companies, the biggest corporations in the world that already are dragging the average corporate tax rate down, will get just as big tax breaks as the small businesses do.
Q: You would not have a tax cut for big corporations?
Moulton: Not the big corporations.
Q: Increase taxes on higher-income people?
Moulton: I would. I would make sure that everybody is paying their fair share. Whether you're earning income because you have money sitting in the bank or a stock account somewhere, you should be taxed on that income fairly and the same.
Q: How about a middle-class tax cut if it increases the deficit?
Moulton: No, we should be able to do middle-class tax cuts by closing corporate loopholes. We can afford to give a middle-class tax cut without ballooning the deficit.
We’ve seen that ballooning the deficit doesn’t work. President Bush tried doing what President Trump is trying to do today. He said that if we just cut taxes, it doesn’t matter if we run up the deficit; growth will make up for it. It didn’t. It failed.
Q: When you talk about an economic plan beyond taxes, what do you mean?
Moulton: Most Americans standing on factory floors today aren’t worried that their manager is going to replace them with an immigrant. They’re worried that they’re going to be replaced by a robot, that their jobs are going to be automated out of existence. …
Rather than take us backward, back into the coal mines, back into an economy of the 1950s that everyone knows doesn’t exist anymore, like Donald Trump is trying to do, let’s talk about how we ensure that people can start new businesses. Let's build infrastructures so we have access to jobs, so if you want to get a job on the internet, you have the same broadband speed in Kansas City or New York City or a village 100 miles away from Kansas City.
Q: What are "security Democrats" like you and Representative Jimmy Panetta of California trying to achieve?
Moulton: We're trying to make America safe and strong at a time when our national security is under severe threat from within. When the commander-in-chief is erratic and untrustworthy. When we are at risk of getting in a nuclear war in Asia, when we have unclear policy in Africa and the Middle East, when we are cutting our diplomatic forces against the advice of military experts across the political spectrum including the president's own secretary of defense.
We need a smart foreign policy that balances all the tools of the American government. Not just the military, but our State Department and diplomatic efforts, long-term investments that actually ensure the peace after we're done fighting the wars.
Some of the new generation of veterans who are stepping up both to run for office and who have recently gotten elected, like myself and Jimmy Panetta and Stephanie Murphy from Florida. We're providing some of that leadership in the absence of leadership from the administration or from some of the older establishment folks in Congress.
Q: You've said today that Trump is erratic, unreliable. Before, you called him a liar, a draft dodger. Is he unfit for office?
Moulton I believe he's unfit for office because of all those things.
When I joined the Marines, I went to Quantico for training. One of the first things I learned is that you can drop out of a run, a couple runs. You can fail the test or a couple tests in a row, and they'd give you a second try. But if you lied about anything, you were gone that afternoon. That's how important integrity is in the military.
Nobody can trust our commander-in-chief, and that alone makes him unfit to be president of the United States.
Q: Should he be impeached?
Moulton One of the lessons that I've taken from studying what happened with President Nixon is that it's important to be slow and deliberate in this process.
Q: The president says he loves vets.
Moulton: Is [this] the five-time draft dodger, who didn't have interest in serving himself, and who has made repeated promises to vets and then disparaged gold-star families? I think anybody out there who actually believes him when he says he loves vets doesn't know what they're talking about.
Q: Among the few people who really engender some confidence in this administration are some generals: Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, arguably Chief of Staff John Kelly. But is there any concern that military officers have a disproportionate influence in the civilian government?
Moulton: Yes, I think that is a concern. I think many of us on both sides of the aisle are thankful that people like Jim Mattis and General Joe Dunford [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] are in the administration right now to keep America on track. But at the same time, we have to be wary of having a government that is not representative of the entire republic. And just having military officers making all the decisions, I think they themselves would say is not ideal.
Q: You’ve talked about the very clear divide between those who have served and the vast majority of others who haven’t. When Trump got into the fight with the gold-star family, General Kelly, who lost his son in Afghanistan, came to his defense and also spoke of that divide. And then he said he would only take questions from reporters who knew someone who had died in combat. Legitimate?
Moulton No. Our country should be about bringing Americans together. And leaders of our country, as General Kelly is today, should be working to bridge that divide, not reinforce it as he did in that press conference.
Q: What would you do to bridge that divide? Should we bring back a draft with alternative service?
Moulton I'm not a believer in bringing back the draft. But I am a huge proponent of national service. I believe that every American should have the opportunity to serve and should feel the obligation to serve.
Q: The new movie, “Thank You for Your Service,” is moving and sad about returning veterans. Are we giving veterans what we owe them?
Moulton: No. I think veterans deserve the best health care in the world -- they’re not getting it. I made a commitment to continue to getting my own health care at the V.A., even as a member of Congress. And, you know, the first surgery I had there, they sent me home with the wrong medications.
Q: You’ve got a lot of friends, some foes. Both sides say you burn with ambition.
Moulton: I don’t think of myself as ambitious. I think of myself as someone who wants to serve and who’s willing to lead in a time when we need leadership in this country. I don’t have some grand political plan. I didn’t even expect to be in politics four or five years ago. Fundamentally, this is a job of public service. And just like going into the Marines and serving in Iraq, even in the midst of a war I disagree with was a job of public service.
Q: People who've been in meetings with you say you’ve raised the possibility of running for president in 2020.
Moulton: No, no, no. I have not raised it. Other people have raised it. I have told people on the record in and out I’m not running for president in 2020.
But, listen, that doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to stand up to the establishment. It doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to say that we need a new generation of leadership in this party.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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