The Curious Campaign of Seth Moulton

Has This “Service Candidate” Served Other Veterans Well?

Did the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race really need a 19tth participant, particularly one joining the line-up just before Joe Biden’s much-ballyhooed entry?

Last Monday, former Marine Seth Moulton’s answer to that question was “Yes, Sir!”

So now the ambitious young Congressman from Salem, Mass. is the fourth House member seeking the Democratic nomination, despite being totally unknown in the rest of the country— and little known elsewhere in the Bay State (at least compared to Elizabeth Warren).

Moulton starts out with a much lower profile than other veterans already in the race—namely, Pete Buttigieg, the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana or Tulsi Gabbard, the Hindu member of Congress from Hawaii, who supported Bernie Sanders last time and commands a strong peace movement following.

Nevertheless, the 40-year old ex-military officer is worth watching, for as long as his vanity campaign lasts. Moulton-style “service candidates” are now being widely recruited and strongly supported by both major parties and their wealthy funders  

Among fellow Democrats, Moulton has been a mentor, model, and fund-raiser for other ex-military men and women seeking Congressional seats in other states. He hopes to gain traction for his own fourth bid for public office by arguing that his Marine experience, plus multiple Harvard degrees, make him most qualified to be our next commander in chief.

On the day Moulton announced his candidacy, the New York Times noted that ten “of the 67 new representative who swung control of the House to the Democrats in the 2018 elections…served in the military, intelligence agencies, or diplomatic service.” According to The Times, they “bring expertise to a body where practical skills and deep knowledge about war, peace, foreign aid, diplomacy, and geostrategic thinking are in short supply.”

Moulton believes there is a similar skills and knowledge deficit in the White House, enabling him to attack President Trump “where he is weakest,” while healing partisan divisions. On the campaign trail, the winner of a Bronze Star, during four tours of duty in Iraq, plans “to talk about patriotism, about security, about service…issues that for too long Democrats have ceded to Republicans.” In a Good Morning America interview, he told ABC viewers: “I’m running because I’m a patriot, because I believe in this country, and because I’ve never wanted to sit on the sidelines when it comes to serving it.”

A Primary Challenger

This personal branding won over Democratic primary voters in his own district, north of Boston, in 2014. That’s when Moulton unexpectedly beat John Tierney, a labor-friendly, nine-term incumbent whose reputation was tarnished by a local scandal involving his wife and brother-in-law. Moulton’s challenge to Tierney was no more encouraged by the Democratic Party establishment than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful race against a member of the House Democratic leadership last year. But Moulton was no AOC. He ran against Tierney from the right, not the left.

Among his backers was retired General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan. Another Moulton fan, who supervised his work on a special counter-insurgency team in Iraq, is retired General David Petraeus. Like McChrystal, Petraeus left government service under a cloud of controversy. He pleaded guilty to mishandling classified documents as director of the CIA, which ended his own presidential aspirations as a “service candidate.”

As noted in a long profile in Politico last year, Moulton likes to recall a conversation he had with a fellow Marine during bloody fighting in Najaf in 2004. “You know Sir,” his subordinate told him. “You ought to run for Congress someday so that this shit doesn’t happen again.” Once free to do that, Moulton has played the veteran card very differently than Congressional critics of foreign intervention like Gabbard, who also served in Iraq.

Moulton’s criticism of “this shit,” then and now, focuses on civilian leadership errors that made U.S. wars in the Middle East less winnable. As he told one interviewer in 2007, “ I feel the [Iraq] war would be going differently if you had leadership that really understood, No. 1, what it’s like to be on the ground, had actually served in the armed forces—and, No.2., really had a good managerial grasp of making this thing work.”

A Technological Tweak

Once in Congress, Moulton became a champion of greater bi-partisan ship, to the point where, according to Politico, he made sure that his wedding guests, two years ago, included “an even number of Republicans and Democrats from Congress.” As one “signature achievement,” Moulton touts his work with Republicans on the “Faster Care for Veterans Act of 2016.” Signed into law by President Obama, this bi-partisan measure required the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to experiment with an online self-scheduling app for VA patients. According to Moulton, a VA patient himself, this allows them to make medical appointments “from their smart phones or computers with the click of a button.”

According to Rick Weidman, a Vietnam vet and Washington staffer for the Vietnam Veterans of America, scheduling convenience for some is not the same as better access to care for all. “Scheduling apps just mean that one veteran gets ahead of someone else in line,” Weidman points out. The real challenge—not met under Obama or his successor—is properly funding VA hospitals and clinics, so they have enough care-givers to assist all the new patients coming through the door .  “You don’t do that with a scheduling app.” Weidman says,” “You do that by filling the almost 49,000 vacancies at the VA.”

Last  year, Moulton joined forces with conservative Republicans and other wayward Democrats to enact legislation that addresses VA under-staffing by out-sourcing more of its direct care. Starting next month, the VA MISSION Act of 2018 will divert billion of dollars from the VA to private sector providers, who are often less well-equipped to deal with veterans’ healthcare problems. As Senator Bernie Sanders warned, this major privatization move will adversely affect nine million patients, many of whom are poor, working-class, and/or people of color. And next on President Trump’s “to do” list, after the first stage of MISSION Act implementation, will be drawing up a list of VA hospital and clinics to close.

In the House, while Moulton was voting for all of this, Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the MISSION Act as a gift to “Trump Administration ideologues and the Koch Brothers” who want to “dismantle veterans’ health care.” As Pelosi told a town hall meeting in San Francisco, “The people who want to privatize the VA don’t want to make it better. They want to make a buck.”

Generational Change?

Last year,  Moulton made his biggest splash in the House, with a failed campaign to oust Pelosi herself, in the interests of “generational change.” This attempted leadership coup not only created a backlash among female Democratic Party activists in Moulton’s own district.   It was not popular among influential advocates for veterans in Washington, DC.

Three of them—Joe Violante, Steve Robertston, and Dennis Cullinan—penned a piece for The Hill documenting what they called Pelosi’s “incredible legacy of leadership on behalf of our nation’s veterans and their families.” (Violante, Robertson, and Cullinan served, respectively, as the past national legislative directors of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.)

If Moulton’s bid for the presidency ends as badly as his plotting against Pelosi, he plans to seek re-election in his own 6th Congressional District. But potential primary opponents next year are already making hay out of Moulton’s tendency, in their view, to put personal ambition ahead of his district and, now, spend most of his time outside of it.

If a strong challenger does emerge and Moulton suffers a primary defeat like John Tierney did five years ago, he will be headed back to the private sector, where his resume is rather thin. His one foray into business involved a failed bid to “improve the health care system”—while making a buck or two—as president of Eastern Healthcare Partners.

When he ran for Congress in 2014, Moulton highlighted his role as a “successful entrepreneur” and stake-holder in EHP. Yet this weight-loss industry start-up, co-founded with a Harvard Business School classmate, went out of business the following year. According to the Boston Globeits legacy includes an overdue Delaware state tax bill of up to $340,000 (still unpaid, as of March) and a  dispute with Johns Hopkins University Medical Center over payment for its clinical trials of EHP’s “diabetes lifestyle prevention program.”  

Today, for good reason, Eastern Healthcare Partners—or Moulton’s original leadership role in it– isn’t mentioned anywhere in his personal biography on the websites for his Congressional office or his just-launched presidential campaign.