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Is the presidential race still about choosing the next leader of the free world? If so, there’s remarkably little discussion of the world in the 2020 race so far. Despite polls showing that nearly 6 in 10 voters believe President Donald Trump has made America less respected in the world, the candidate most directly challenging him on foreign policy is 40-year-old dark horse Seth Moulton, a third-term congressman from Massachusetts.
As the Trump administration appears to edge toward conflict with Iran, Representative Moulton, a decorated Marine who served four combat tours, says it’s clear the U.S. hasn’t learned the lessons of Iraq. “If people who have seen the worst of war don’t stand up and do these jobs in Washington, then people in Washington are going to keep doing this,” says Mr. Moulton, who maintains Democrats should quit ceding patriotism to Republicans. “I think we have a historic opportunity to reclaim the mantle of leadership on national security.”
But with a week before the June 12 deadline, he has yet to meet the 65,000-donor threshold required to enter the first Democratic debate and advance his ideas.
Of all the Democrats vying to be leader of the free world, Seth Moulton may be the only one who actually talks much about the world.
An ex-Marine who served four combat tours in Iraq, Representative Moulton of Massachusetts has tried to stand out in the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates by emphasizing military and foreign-policy issues. He says it’s important for his party to highlight the hash President Donald Trump has made of the U.S. global role by alienating allies and embracing authoritarians.
“I think we have a historic opportunity to reclaim the mantle of leadership on national security,” he says between campaign stops in New Hampshire in which he calls for Democrats to quit ceding patriotism to Republicans. “I don’t know why so many Democrats are passing it up, but I’m not going to pass it up.”
Let Joe Biden emphasize electability. Bernie Sanders can talk about corporate power all he wants. While Kamala Harris and the rest of the field debate the fine points of expanding health care, Mr. Moulton says he is focused on restoring America’s moral authority in the world.
So far he hasn’t gained much traction. Mr. Moulton remains a blip in the polls, far behind the leaders. There may be multiple reasons he has yet to catch fire, but one could be this: Foreign policy is a difficult electoral issue.
Foreign issues seldom sway voters, particularly in primaries. For candidates, they can be tripping hazards best avoided. It’s easy to make a foreign-policy gaffe – mispronouncing a foreign leader’s name, say, or placing their nation on the wrong continent. But it’s hard to get a campaign rally excited by calls to “support the liberal international order.”
Still, 2020 could be different. Mr. Trump’s disruptive approach to foreign policy, from his threats to Iran to his denigration of longtime NATO allies, may indeed have made some voters wary. Fifty-seven percent of likely voters believe Mr. Trump has “made America less respected around the world,” according to a new poll from National Security Action, a Democratic-leaning group. Sixty-seven percent think Mr. Trump “lacks the temperament” to be commander in chief.
Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee could attack Mr. Trump directly on his record as head of the U.S. armed forces, despite the Republican Party’s customary advantage on security and foreign issues. At a time when Trumpism has shaken up traditional GOP thinking on national security, experts say there is indeed an opportunity for a centrist Democrat to gain political ground.
“When I think about some of the more thoughtful people over the last 20 years on the Republican side on how to manage irregular threats, and to think about emerging peer competitors, those voices are gone,” says Richard Shultz, director of the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts. “So you have the president, whose foreign policy is chaotic, and you have [national security] documents that are drafted that to me are challengeable. ... It’s the kind of argument a Biden could make.”
But former Vice President Biden, who first ran for president when Mr. Moulton was in elementary school, is not making such arguments. Not yet, at least.
“One of the most striking things about the Democratic primary so far – aside from the sheer number of candidates running – is how little any of them has said about foreign policy,” wrote Jonathan Tepperman, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, last month.
“I think Biden will increasingly step it up,” says David Gergen, a political analyst and professor of public service who taught Mr. Moulton at Harvard Kennedy School. “But Seth right now is one of the only go-to people.”
Pushups on the stump
Mr. Moulton, dressed in his standard campaigning uniform – a blue shirt (no tie) and khaki pants – kicked off a recent Sunday morning with a veterans fundraiser outside Boston. Since he arrived too late to do pushups with the participants, he ended his stump speech with a set of 28, ramrod straight.
“Let’s see Joe Biden do that!” someone shouted.
Mr. Biden, the current Democratic front-runner, may not be much competition in calisthenics, but he has decades more foreign-policy experience and is way ahead in the polls.
Unless Mr. Moulton gets 65,000 donors to give at least $1 to his campaign by June 12, he won’t be allowed to participate in the first couple of debates. And he must double that to make the third debate.
A small crowd of potential donors is waiting for Mr. Moulton when he arrives an hour later at the Black Forest Café in Amherst, famed for its whoopie pies. Some attendees have driven more than an hour to hear him talk about how education, climate change, and immigration are all national security issues, affecting Americans right here at home.
He lambasts Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, pointing to recent events: the president’s “best buddy in North Korea” firing off missiles again, a “failed coup” in Venezuela, a march toward “war with Iran.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly said it is not seeking war. It has justified the current U.S. military buildup as a response to attacks on several oil tankers for which Washington blamed Iran. But the escalation has brought a certain sense of déjà vu for some.
“It’s amazing to me that in this drumroll for war in Iran, we clearly haven’t learned the lessons of Iraq,” says Mr. Moulton, who was awarded the Bronze Star in Iraq. But even while he was still fighting, the young Marine was already becoming disillusioned with what he saw as a misguided military adventure. That eventually led him to run for Congress – and now the presidency.
“If people who have seen the worst of war don’t stand up and do these jobs in Washington, then people in Washington are going to keep doing this,” he says.
Clear eyes about Trump’s support
Many supporters of Mr. Trump praise him for asserting American strength, critics be damned. They see his direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as far more promising than the decades of stalemate under previous presidents. They hail him for calling out Iranian aggression in the Middle East, and cheer on his tough trade stance on Beijing after years of watching manufacturing jobs move to China – even if his tariffs hurt U.S. workers.
Mr. Moulton credits the president for confronting China, but disagrees with his approach. Instead of tariffs, he says, the United States should spearhead a Pacific version of NATO and revive something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade alliance to counterbalance China, particularly in artificial intelligence.
World leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin need to start taking the U.S. seriously again, he says, especially with the Kremlin believed to be intent on undermining the 2020 election.
At Mr. Moulton’s fourth and final event of the day, in Londonderry, Vietnam veteran Greg Warner says to him, “The Chinese are playing Go, and they’re very good at it; the Russians are playing chess; and we used to be playing checkers. But now we’ve got a president that plays tic-tac-toe. ... We’re not paying attention! We’re not even playing.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Mr. Moulton responds. “We’re asleep at the switch.”
But the depth of support for Mr. Trump is not lost on Mr. Moulton, who keeps in touch with conservative Marine buddies, works out regularly with Republicans, and travels through Trump country more than most coastal Democrats. He tells every crowd he addresses that it’s going to be a lot harder to beat Mr. Trump than many Democrats think.
For Mr. Moulton, however, the first battle is getting on the Democratic debate stage. Graham Allison, an adviser to presidential administrations for decades who taught Mr. Moulton at Harvard Kennedy School, says he is quite experienced in foreign policy compared with almost all the other candidates and even compared with former presidential candidates – Mr. Trump included.
“I find [his ideas] very solid, sensible, pragmatic – not ideological,” says Professor Allison.
Still, even Mr. Moulton’s former professors say his odds of winning the Democratic nomination are not great. But as his wife said in his kickoff campaign video, once he puts his mind to something, he won’t quit.
“The person that takes on Donald Trump needs to be a tank … and that’s Seth,” said Liz Moulton.