He has likened the rise of Donald Trump to the rise of Adolf Hitler. He has caustically chided Republican Governor Charlie Baker for confusing Syrian “refugees and those from whom they need refuge.”
He has taken jabs at members of his own party, publicly criticizing President Obama’s military strategy in the Middle East just weeks after he joined the president’s history-making trip to Cuba.
“Just to be clear (and to contradict the White House),” he tweeted on May 10, “this IS a combat mission in Iraq.”
Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine captain who served four tours in Iraq, is still doing battle. Seventeen months since he went to Congress by dislodging a fellow Democrat, Moulton is making a name for himself for his equal-opportunity candor. While most freshmen members of Congress have a hard time getting noticed in Washington, Moulton has drawn attention by taking on one establishment figure after another — from predictable Republican targets to insiders from his own party.
“You just look at how he’s tackling his job. He’s very high-profile,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. She likened his profile to that of his better-known counterpart, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“Like Warren, he’s willing to speak his mind, and you may not always agree with him but you always know where he stands,” said Marsh. “People forget, I think, how much voters value that. You see that everywhere right now.”
After barging into the all-Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation by beating a longtime incumbent, Moulton was greeted with some skepticism from House Democrats who’d worked against his election as they tried to protect their friend John Tierney. Representative Michael E. Capuano of Somerville called it “uncomfortable” when Moulton was sworn in and said then, “I hope someday Seth will be a friend. Right now, he’s my colleague.”
Though House members remain attached to his predecessor, some said they have since brought Moulton, who lives in Salem, into the fold.
“I think everybody in the delegation still has a lot of fond feelings for John Tierney and we always will,” said Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester. “Seth has become a member of this delegation. We all genuinely like him and get along with him, and you’ve got to put the past where it belongs — in the past.”
Moulton, 37, has sought their counsel, joined a bipartisan workout group with Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, and occasionally has lunch with Warren.
Yet Moulton, often described as “thoughtful,” “earnest,” and “respectful” by his colleagues, is decidedly provocative online. While his communications director, Carrie Rankin, acknowledged it can be a bit nerve-racking working with an outspoken politician who handles his own social media, “he really enjoys engaging with people on social media, and I think that constituents appreciate that it’s really him.”
Matthew A. Baum, a professor of global communications and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Twitter has proved an effective medium for politicians, particularly back-benchers or those in the minority party, to get their message out.
“You don’t do that by being moderate and considerate,” said Baum. “You do that by tilting at windmills, taking on sacred cows. You do it by taking on your president and seeming particularly righteous.”
While it’s standard operating procedure to attack the opposing party, Baum said, criticizing your own “gets more attention because it’s more novel.”
Of the social media critiques, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin: “It seems to be the fashion. Trump has turned into sort of an art form.”
Galvin’s own dispute with Moulton — over a housing development — was documented by a Globe column that perhaps made Galvin’s opposition (over the fate of historical buildings) seem petty when compared to Moulton’s high-minded appeal to help veterans find affordable housing. Still, Galvin, also a Democrat, came away from the tussle with nothing bad to say about Moulton, calling their exchange a “very polite, civil, businesslike conversation” that ended cordially.
The state Republican Party, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not impressed. “Tweeting snide complaints from the sidelines may be what passes for the work of a congressman in Washington but it takes more than 140 characters of partisan talking points to truly serve the people of Massachusetts,” said party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes. But so far, the GOP does not expect to put up a challenger to the freshman congressman in the fall election.
In some ways, particularly in discussions involving the military, Moulton seems to be inoculated by his record: He enlisted in the Marines after graduating from Harvard University and served four tours of duty in Iraq.
“I think because of his background, when he speaks up on these issues, people listen,” said Kennedy.
His colleagues attribute his sharp critique of the Obama administration’s military engagement against the Islamic State in particular to his personal involvement — and the fact that a friend of his in Iraq was recently killed.
“Yesterday I lost my closest friend in the Iraqi Army to ISIS and our failed policy in Iraq,” Moulton tweeted May 5.
“The tragedy is that today we’re sending troops back into Iraq under the same president who promised to pull them out,” Moulton told reporters.
“This was a very personal loss about which he felt strongly,” said Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell. “I think we all understand.”
Twice decorated for heroism for leading his platoon through battles in Iraq, Moulton never disclosed those awards during his political campaign, discussing them only after the Globe unearthed them.
Moulton took to Twitter, charging: “It’s a shame that Governor Baker doesn’t know the difference between refugees and those from whom they need refuge.”
The governor, seemingly stung, expressed disappointment that “a serious guy like that went straight to the partisan talking points.”
Still, Moulton went further: “My American values and Marine Corps experience are not ‘partisan talking points,’ ” he said on Twitter, scolding the governor that he “should know better.”
Moulton later wrote an opinion piece for the Globe explaining his perspective — and then pointedly invited an injured 9-year-old Syrian refugee and his father to join him at the president’s State of the Union address in January.
Despite their differences, Moulton said in an interview that he has a “good relationship” with the governor.
“Look, we can have differences over policy and priorities but we try to always have a respectful debate,” Moulton said. “I think that’s what’s missing from so much of politics today is some decency and respect, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
That said, he added, “You have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw the line with Trump. He is frightening for our country and for our troops.”
Moulton said the Obama administration knows of his concerns about its involvement in the Middle East — that it is ratcheting up military engagement without a plan for restoring stability — but that public criticism is never his first recourse.
“I’m banging on doors in the administration. Going to the press with stuff is the last thing to do,” Moulton said. “What I’m trying to do most of all is to get folks from the administration to listen and be thoughtful about their strategy because I think we owe that to the troops.”