As he told me Friday morning that he was pulling the plug on his presidential campaign, Seth Moulton was both singularly upbeat and deeply reflective.
He doesn’t regret that he gave it a shot, but he regrets the way politics get done in this country. He regrets that personality counts for more than policy, that polls and money decide so early who gets to go forward before issues get a full hearing, that somebody like him couldn’t even make it to the debate stage to present his ideas to the American people because of arcane party rules.
As he crisscrossed America, he found a profound disconnect between the media world and the real world. He said his Serve America initiative to increase awareness of and participation in national service was very popular with ordinary folks, if not the media.
“Everywhere I went, reporters would ask me when I was going to get out of the race,” he said, “and ordinary Americans would tell me to hang in there.”
In politics, timing is everything, and like his beloved baseball team, the one that plays at Fenway Park, this was not Seth Moulton’s year.
After he decided to end his campaign, Moulton said he wanted to talk to me. Moulton said he reached out because he remembered I was willing to drive up to Marblehead one day years ago, when he was just flirting with the idea of running for Congress, to talk to some idealistic Marine vet who wanted to save the world. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was actually more interested in getting the fish special at the Three Cod Tavern. But then, loyalty is a big thing to Moulton, who remains very close to the Marines he led in Iraq.
From the get go, his presidential campaign struggled to gain traction, and the political wise guys insisted he never had a chance anyway.
He has heard it all before. Democratic insiders never liked him. He was considered impetuous, didn’t know to wait his turn, when he took on and defeated Democratic stalwart John Tierney to claim the North Shore congressional seat. Many Democrats will never forgive him for orchestrating a coup aimed at overthrowing Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
Moulton shrugs that criticism off, noting that most of the people in John Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” indeed many of the people given the award named for that book, defied their own party to do what they thought was right.
He’s got a point. When the loud and proud congresswomen nicknamed The Squad threw some shade on Pelosi, they were hailed as courageous truth-tellers by other progressives. When Moulton argued that Pelosi and her leadership team, almost entirely men, had run the party into the ground and presided over historic losses, he was dismissed as sexist and ageist.
The double standard is glaring, and it blinds a lot of progressives when it comes to Moulton. After all, he has been outspoken in calling for President Trump’s impeachment, while Pelosi has demurred.
So, who’s the real progressive?
“I got into this race because I didn’t see a better foil to Trump than a young combat veteran,” the former Marine officer said, “and I was the only one in the race.”
But as the race unfolded, and he watched the debates from the sidelines, Moulton came to a conclusion.
“It’s a three-way race now,” he said. “Biden, Warren, and Sanders. I could see the writing on the wall. It’s a debate about how far left the party can go.”
He worries it will drift too far that way, handing Trump another four years in the White House.
That said, Moulton does not apologize for his progressive beliefs, and thinks there is a way to persuade the great nonpartisan middle of the country that decides presidential elections that they’d get a better shake under a Democratic administration than under Trump.
“We’ve got to build a broad coalition,” he said, “not just Democrats, but disaffected Republicans, Obama voters. That’s what I did as a platoon leader in Iraq. I had Marines from Texas, from Massachusetts, from all over. Different races, backgrounds, religions. And we were in the middle of a very divisive environment, fighting a war I was opposed to. I thought that leadership experience, which I uniquely have, would be useful in building that coalition.”
The polls said otherwise, as did the pundits who kept harping on Moulton’s being too ambitious.
Moulton chuckled at that.
“Ambition has become a bad thing in America,” he said. “This is a country that prized ambition. The Founding Fathers were pretty ambitious. Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, they were pretty ambitious. We should value ambition.”
Many media types never warmed to Moulton, seeing him as peripatetic in his ambition.
If you say a female politician is too ambitious, you’re sexist. If you say it about a guy like Moulton, you’re woke.
Moulton did his country some service in Iraq, and he’s done some service by highlighting important issues in his campaign. He tried to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by acknowledging he had suffered from post-traumatic stress, the first presidential candidate to acknowledge that. He fought for honorable discharges for the 100,000 LGBTQ people forced out of the military since World War II.
He talked about reshaping foreign policy, not so that it would return to pre-Trump so-called normalcy, but to go beyond the confines of the neo-con orthodoxy that got us into wars that he — not the chicken hawks in Congress who wouldn’t dream of sending their own kids — fought.
He talked not only about rethinking NATO, which as constituted is a Cold War relic, but creating a Pacific version of NATO, to provide a check on an increasingly, dare I say, ambitious China.
“My foreign policy vision is not going back to the way things were before Trump,” he said. “We need to rethink everything, including making some tough cuts, expensive weapons systems we don’t need. Rethinking our alliances, like doing a Pacific NATO. China is a rising threat. We do have allies in the Pacific, but they are not aligned with each other. We need to get them all on the same page because we have a shared interest when it comes to China.”
As a combat veteran who put his life on the line for his country, it drives him nuts to see Republicans claim some sort of monopoly on patriotism, wrapping themselves in the flag while they do something entirely different to the Constitution.
“That drives me absolutely insane. We’ve got to reclaim patriotism and the flag,” he said of the Democrats. “We can be strong on defense. It’s not all about cuts and retreats. It’s about how do we make our military smarter and stronger and better.”
I would have paid big money to watch Moulton, a decorated combat veteran, debate Trump, who scammed his way out of the service, on how to support our military and our veterans. No one in the Democratic field, not even Navy veteran Pete Buttigieg, who like Moulton is a Harvard guy and a good guy, could eviscerate Trump like Moulton. If Moulton said “bone spurs” to Trump, it would sting like a bee.
But, again, it just wasn’t his year. He wants to concentrate on retaining his congressional seat and diving back into issues important to his district, such as transportation, which he thinks the Baker administration needs to focus more on as traffic in and around Boston becomes a real quality of life issue and the MBTA’s problems multiply.
Moulton said he is especially proud that he and his campaign elevated the issue of mental health.
“This campaign helped me confront my own fears,” he said.
When we last spoke, after he publicly acknowledged his post-traumatic stress, Moulton told me he thought doing so probably hurt him politically, but on the campaign trail he saw that it was well worth it.
At a campaign stop, a Vietnam veteran approached him and said after hearing Moulton speak about his own struggles with post-traumatic stress, he sought help for things related to his service some 50 years ago. Another man who said his son had died tragically a few years ago told Moulton that he just started seeing a therapist because of Moulton’s talking about his own struggles.
“Those are real people,” Moulton said. “This is really important.”
So is family, and Moulton acknowledged that as he and his wife, Liz, talked about the campaign, Liz was always supportive, both of him running and of him ending that run. They had their first child, Emmy, 10 months ago.
“When Emmy grows up and asks me what I did to defeat Donald Trump,” Seth Moulton said, “I can tell her I did everything I could.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.