As part of an effort to understand the state of the Democratic Party — both inside and outside Washington — in the wake of Donald Trump's victory, I am embarking on an occasional series of email conversations with people who will be part of what comes next for the party. I began this project by talking to Guy Cecil, a leading Democratic strategist. The second installment was a chat with Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state, who nearly unseated Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in November. The latest is my conversation with Seth Moulton, a Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts first elected in 2014. Our conversation was conducted via email and is reproduced below. Have a suggestion for a Democrat I should talk to for this series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIX: Congressman, thanks for doing this.
I want to start with the fact that you have been very high profile in your opposition to Donald Trump and his travel ban on refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The Boston Globe wrote a piece headlined “Seth Moulton is seizing the moment.”
So, walk me through your thinking on why to push so hard — and so publicly — on this one issue. And what’s the feedback been — both inside and outside of Congress.
I am also interested in your take in whether Democrats need a message beyond “Trump is bad” at the moment. Lots of people in the party say “no,” pointing out that Republicans made big gains in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections with a message that effectively boiled down to: “We’re not Obama.”
Moulton: Sorry for the delay. My travel has been held up by the winter storm. I’ll do my best to answer your subsequent questions more quickly!
My reason for standing up on this issue is simple: it's the morally right thing to do. This order is absolutely harmful to our national security — to the safety of Americans here at home, and to the lives of our young troops abroad. Our enemies will use it against us, and our we will lose the trust of our critical Muslim allies.
Each of us — myself, my Republican colleagues, and President Trump — swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. It's the exact same oath I took when I became a Marine officer. I'll never compromise that oath for the sake of politics, though it seems that the President and many of my Republican colleagues have chosen to do so.
In the Marine Corps, you are taught to never leave a man behind. Many of the people affected by this ban are translators who risked their lives by working with us — people who have sacrificed more for our country than many of my colleagues ever will. I won't leave those men and women behind, and our country shouldn't either. And don’t think that our future allies aren’t watching. Especially in this Internet age, everyone will know how we treat our friends, and that will affect the ability of our troops to do their job as safely and effectively as possible.
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. That shouldn't be surprising, since most Americans don't support this immoral and unconstitutional ban. But more than any particular policy, Americans are hungry for real leadership. Trump's no leader: He's a coward who's sacrificed almost nothing for this country. And if you look on the Democratic side, our leadership team has remained largely unchanged since the people who just voted in their first election were five years old. It's time for a new generation of leadership, both in politics and in America as a whole.
For Democrats, that means stepping up and articulating a clear vision for our future. And I don’t just mean more policies — I mean vision. Who are we as a nation? What do we want to become in the next century? What roles can we all have in this new world and the new economy?
Trump presented a dark, backward-looking view of America. Democrats have the opportunity to present a vision for the future, an optimistic vision that’s true to our values and asks all Americans to be a part of our success. I believe Americans are hungry now — and will be even more hungry after a few years of Trump — for an optimistic vision for the future and a real plan to get there.
FIX: Ah, yes, the ‘vision’ thing.
What I am left with after this last campaign, however, is that the vision Donald Trump offered of America — where we are and where we are going — was fundamentally at odds with the vision that politicians of the left and right have offered before. Trump’s America was a dangerous and chaotic place that was on the verge of permanently spinning out of control. Only by electing Trump could we avoid that fate.
No one thought the public at large would vote for someone with such a dystopian vision for America. And yet, Trump won.
My question for you: Does Trump’s win fundamentally alter the calculus of the vision that Democrats need to offer the country? Does your party need to do a better job of acknowledging the struggles many people have? The idea that the American Dream is dead or dying? And, if they don’t do that, do they run the risk of looking out of touch ala Clinton in 2016?
Moulton: The fact that Trump's “vision” resonated with anyone at all is a reflection of how little vision was presented by either side during the campaign. Democrats campaigned on the notion that everything was more or less fine, and all we had to do was stay the course. But that totally ignores the fact that this economic recovery, while significant, has been uneven, and a lot of Americans feel left out. I don't think that most people genuinely buy Trump's pessimistic view of America. Most people love this country and still believe in our ability to be a positive force in the world. But if you have one candidate saying we've got big problems and one candidate just saying, “That guy's nuts!” you can understand why people would gravitate toward someone who is at least willing to acknowledge the problems real people are facing, even if he can't even begin to offer any realistic solutions.
It makes total sense that the generation who's led us here over the last twenty years would say that “everything is fine” or that “they alone can fix it.” But this election has shown us that people are hungry for change. It's going to take a new generation of leaders to offer the kind of real, sweeping change that people are looking for. I do not believe we should try to “trump Trump” with a similarly dark message or similarly pessimistic messengers. One piece of encouraging news is that I've spoken with dozens of service veterans who feel called to run for office in the wake of this disaster — and that's just in the last few weeks. These are Americans who, unlike Trump, have actually made sacrifices for our country. They know that the America they fought for, or the community they served through civilian service programs, is better than the weak country Trump wants us to be. Democrats have a chance to be the party that offers that new generation of leadership to America. I'm working to make sure we seize that chance.
FIX: To your point about Democrats offering a “new generation of leadership to America”: The two leading names to take on Trump in 2020 are Bernie Sanders (age 75) and Elizabeth Warren (age 67). Both will be septuagenarians by the time voters vote in 2020.
But wait, there’s more! The top three leaders for House Democrats are Nancy Pelosi (76), Steny Hoyer (77) and Jim Clyburn (76). And none of them were seriously challenged for their jobs after watching 80 seats disappear between 2010 and 2016.
Doesn’t that make it hard to say Democrats to say they are the party where young leaders are most welcome? Why wasn’t there a more serious challenge to the Congressional leadership following 2016? And why aren’t more young people looking at that 2020 presidential open nomination and stepping forward?
Moulton: I've been very clear — and very public — that it's time for a new generation of Democratic leaders to step up, both in Congress and in states across the country. And I think there's far more support for change than the result of [Ohio Rep.] Tim Ryan's leadership challenge, for example, might suggest. The support I’ve received for pushing for change within our caucus has been far greater than I ever imagined. The reality is that many people understand that we need a change, but too many are afraid to make it happen. Courage, more than anything else, is what's missing from Washington today. And this next generation, the generation that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and has served in disproportionate numbers here at home, is far better prepared to provide that courageous leadership than the generation that sent us there.
You're right that this next generation isn't reflected in our current leadership — yet. But remember also that it's February 2017. Barack Obama wasn't on anyone's presidential radar in February 2005. And he was considered a long shot at best when he announced his candidacy two years later. But he emerged as a national leader because he was willing to speak past the bitter partisanship of the day and articulate a bold, optimistic vision for the future of our country. And he put his reputation on the line to defend that vision when the establishment told him it was too bold or it wasn’t his turn. People respected that, were inspired by it, and in the end they elected a 47-year-old as president of the United States.
The next generation of Obamas is out there. I hope many of them are Democrats. But more than that, I hope they have the courage to stand up and lead.
FIX: Ok. Last question. I want to go back to the Congressional leadership issue.
It felt like after the very tough results of the 2010 and 2014 midterms and the disappointing result of 2016 it was time for a change. And yet, as you note, Tim Ryan got slaughtered in his race against Pelosi. And the other top two Democratic leaders weren’t even challenged.
Sure, some of that is about courage. The courage to put yourself out there. But doesn’t part of the blame lie with the current leadership team who continues to insist that all is well and no changes are needed? And what does that say about a party who isn’t willing — or doesn’t understand — that they need to make space for their next generation of leaders?
Moulton: There’s no question that our party leadership needs to take responsibility for November's election results. My job description as a Marine infantry officer was a single sentence: “You are responsible for everything your platoon does or fails to do.” That's as simple and powerful a definition of leadership as I've ever seen. That's the ethic of leadership we need in public service today. And if our current generation of leaders isn't willing or able to provide it, then it's time for a change.
All of this does, I think, come back to courage. It takes courage to admit you've made mistakes and have room to improve. It takes courage to encourage competition and know that you have to earn, and re-earn, your position on merit. And it takes courage to invest in the future knowing that someday that future might mean you're out of a job. But that ethos — constantly improving through healthy competition and constantly investing in our future — is the very definition of progress. That's the heart of what we stand for as Americans, and certainly as Democrats.
You can get away with bad leadership for a little while in a top-down party apparatus, or if you're a President who attempts to rule by fear and intimidation because you lack the courage and conviction to act otherwise. But Americans know what real leadership looks like. People want to be proud of their representatives.
A new generation of leadership is coming, whether our current leaders like it or not. We'd be wise to embrace that new generation. That's how Democrats, indeed how all of America, will win the 21st century.
Thanks for this opportunity, Chris. It’s been fun!