I’m squinting through the sun at the Polk County Steak Fry, trying to size up Seth Moulton.
It’s a late September Saturday in Des Moines, and Moulton’s onstage, an immense American flag rippling behind him. “A lot of you must be asking,” he begins with a coy glance around, his voice echoing through the PA system, “what is a sophomore congressman from Massachusetts doing speaking here in Iowa?”
Not really. When a politician with an itch goes to Iowa, it’s understood to be a statement: I am putting myself out there. Moulton—with his military decorations, multiple Harvard degrees, and excellent side part—checks a lot of classic candidate boxes. He is physically brave, politically careful, and impeccably credentialed. By aggressively challenging his own party’s leadership, he’s managed to boost his national profile. He clearly doesn’t intend to be a mere congressman from Massachusetts forever. So then … putting himself out there for what, exactly? A run for Senate? The 2020 veep slot?
I can’t know Seth Moulton’s heart. But there’s no doubt that grand ambition stirs within. It seems unlikely he’d attempt to run against Donald Trump next cycle—too soon, too young—and yet he’s snuck onto all the media short lists anyway. Politico ran a profile of him over the summer asking in the headline if he could be president. The Washington Post has not one but two reporters here in Iowa, clocking his performance.
It’s why I’m here, too, to see whether Moulton is a Democratic savior: an honest-to-gosh military hero whose wholesome image, and optimistic palaver about bipartisan solutions, might appeal to the broad middle of the country. No doubt that’s what Moulton’s betting. But as I watch him awkwardly work this heartland crowd, I can’t help but wonder if he’s a candidate custom-built for a different era: a Harvard-bred white guy who thinks he deserves to be in charge, at a moment when neither party’s in the market for one of those.
The first thing to know about Seth Moulton is that his pre-politics résumé is comically beyond reproach. He joined the Marines fresh out of Harvard undergrad, a few months before 9/11. He braved hellish tours of duty in Iraq and then went back, to a war he opposed, though he didn’t have to. He developed such a close bond with an Iraqi interpreter that the man later lived with Moulton’s family in Massachusetts while seeking asylum. He received a Bronze Star for “fearlessly” facing hostile fire in Najaf and kept the honor a secret from almost everyone, including his parents. Moulton’s heroics were at last revealed during his first run for Congress, years later, but only because the Boston Globe dug for dirt in his military records and instead turned up two medals for valor. “There is a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories,’’ Moulton told the paper when asked why he’d concealed what other candidates might have embroidered on hats.
Despite this made-for-the-movies narrative, almost no Iowans I spoke to at the steak fry knew Moulton’s story. Not even people deeply involved in local congressional campaigns were familiar with him. One told me: “They say Iowans won’t vote for someone until we’ve shook their hand four or five times. I’d guess that’s why he came here. To get started.”
Shortly before his speech began, I’d asked Moulton what lured him to corn country. He emphasized that he’d been “invited” while insisting, “The most important thing I’m doing here isn’t speaking; it’s listening. I’m listening to Iowans about the changes they want to see in the Democratic Party. I think if you look at the people invited to speak, it’s people who are pushing for change in the party.”
It’s no shock he’d frame it this way, as pushing for change in the party has been Moulton’s signature move over his entire, albeit short, political career. Three years ago, at age 35, he drew on swanky connections—among them Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whom Moulton impressed while a grad student at Harvard’s Kennedy School—to successfully primary a nine-term incumbent Massachusetts Democrat. He’d barely wet his feet in D.C. before calling for Nancy Pelosi’s head and demanding “younger” party leadership. He’s generally worn his ambition on his preppy, gingham sleeve in a manner so grating that Politico found anonymous sources happy to call him “sanctimonious,” “supercilious,” and “duplicitous.” Since he entered Congress in 2014, Moulton hasn’t made much of a legislative mark but has devoted an inordinate hunk of energy—and public comment—to hating on his Democratic colleagues. He’s been open about wanting to mute paleo-elites like Pelosi and instead showcase a younger heartland bubba, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan.
Ryan was the guy Moulton backed to oust Pelosi as Democratic leader last year. That power grab failed, but the two bros still looked to be in cahoots as they spatula’d photo-op meat side-by-side at the steak fry grill in Des Moines. Watching them schmooze together made it obvious that Moulton lacks Ryan’s backslapping ease in crowds. Perhaps it’s his New England upbringing (Phillips Academy Andover, three Harvard degrees), or his military training, or his hawklike features, but Moulton exudes a flinty vibe. He’s relatively new to baby-kissing and glad-handing, and his smiles are tighter than Ryan’s, his body language stiffer.
Ryan, in Congress since 2003, opened his Des Moines speech by detailing his everyman bona fides. (He loves to watch sports alone in his den in Youngstown while his wife and kids are upstairs.) The bulk of his address outlined a Democratic Party vision that might have been lifted from a Mark Lilla essay.
“Republicans have been trying to divide us,” Ryan said. “And we as Democrats came along and affirmed their divisions! We said, ‘If you’re African American, I’m going to talk to you about voting rights. If you’re a Latino, I’m going to talk to you about immigration. If you’re a woman, I talk to you about choice. If you’re gay, I talk to you about LGBT rights.’ ” Ryan had no problem, meanwhile, targeting other groups: “Our party has to focus like a laser beam on the waitress with two kids. On the factory worker. We lost them to Trump.”
Moulton is, like Ryan, a white man trying to navigate the party’s current race-inflected fault line—in which the urge to recapture the white working class vies with the urge to rekindle Barack Obama’s turnout magic with nonwhite voters. Moulton’s speech didn’t denounce identity politics like Ryan’s did. Moulton simply sidestepped—never mentioning police brutality, or criminal justice reform, or DACA, or trans rights, or the glass ceiling.
Instead, he lamented that “we’ve left behind Americans who run lunch counters and small businesses.” He spoke reverently of bipartisanship. He recalled that the platoon of Marines he led in Iraq was “on a common mission” despite different political beliefs. He praised Democrats of yore for winning World War II and putting a man on the moon.
This was eye-glazingly anodyne stuff. Just like his résumé, it was beyond reproach—well-suited to a war hero barnstorming the country on a speakers tour. But as a call to political arms? Not so much.
Moulton has not yet committed to a political identity. He’s biding his time, leaning on his biography, gestating in a larval stage. He’s been a reliable Democratic vote in the House who says Obamacare’s not perfect but (and here he speaks as a vet who still receives VA health care) neither is single-payer. He has well-informed ideas about using high-speed rail to bring exurban workers to urban jobs. He’s been fiercely vocal about gun control, and, as a former Marine, can speak authoritatively and unapologetically on the subject. (After the Las Vegas shooting, he introduced bipartisan legislation banning bump stocks—while proudly boasting that the bill has an equal 10 Democratic and 10 Republican co-sponsors.) He has also spent considerable effort trying to recruit fellow veterans to run for office, as he believes that military service instills “the right values” in a candidate.
For the most part, though, Moulton’s vision for Democrats includes not much in the way of vision.
He claims he favors “bold ideas,” but when I pressed him for examples, he offered only vagaries:
There are a lot of bold ideas out there. But I think it’s a little too early to see. I’m listening. I’m trying to understand what matters to people here on the ground in Iowa. It doesn’t matter how bold an idea is in Washington. It matters whether it would make a difference to people’s lives here.
He does not breathe fire when he speaks about social issues, either. Moulton’s brother is gay, and a different kind of congressman might make political hay of that. But when I asked Moulton how Democrats should talk about identity politics, he tap-danced as fast as he could:
Some of the issues with identity politics are critical moral issues. But we’ve got to show America that we don’t have a plan just on these so-called identity politics issues, but that we have a plan for the economy, that we know how to provide for a strong national defense.
He advocates, as best I can tell, zero actual policy breaks from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform. He’d just like to rebrand it—and play a much more prominent role in selling it.
Consider Moulton’s response when I asked him what’s wrong with Pelosi, whom he views as the avatar of recent Democratic failure. After acknowledging she is “an extraordinary woman” and “a politician we can all learn something from,” he launched into this two-pronged critique: 1) General election voters just don’t like the cut of her jib. “The reality is her approval rating is terrible. And Republicans use that against our candidates quite effectively.” 2) She’s holding back terrific legislators like Seth Moulton. “I’ve noticed that younger, talented people do not have a voice in the caucus,” he grumbled.
Setting aside the optics of a brash, inexperienced young man attacking a competent older woman, it’s not even clear that a guy like Moulton can be an effective spokesman right now for the Democratic agenda. He’s crafted a persona perfectly attuned to a different age: a handsome Marine with an Ivy League pedigree. John Kerry with slightly more charisma and slightly less hair. In the left’s current moment, are primary voters really gonna get jazzed about another polished, solidly centrist white guy? (When I asked Moulton if the race and gender of a politician matter to Democratic voters, he said, “No, their values matter. We’re a party that doesn’t discriminate, not a party that does.”)
It’s no sure bet that swing voters in a presidential election would cotton to Moulton, either, given what we saw in 2016. He’s the cream of the coastal elite. A triple Harvard man with an undergrad physics degree. A measured technocrat, the embodiment of establishment expertise. He told me his “whole family went to Brown,” including both parents, and that his grandmother was “devastated” when he opted for Cambridge over Providence.
Tim Ryan put his finger on the problem from the steak fry stage. “I think we rely too much on some smart person from Harvard who’s going to fix everything,” he complained, to a receptive crowd. I tried but failed to catch a glimpse of the expression on Moulton’s face when his buddy stabbed him in the diploma.
What Moulton really does believe in is “service.” It’s a depoliticized concept that seems weak as a rallying cry. Moulton also won’t put teeth in it—he’s reluctant to advocate for mandatory national service, for instance. But it’s clear it’s fundamental to Moulton’s self-conception.
In his freshman year of college, Moulton met the man who would become his mentor: Peter Gomes, a gay black pastor at Memorial Church, where Moulton would end up spending a lot of time. Gomes preached the importance of giving back, which led Moulton to search for some selfless cause to be part of after graduation. He considered the Peace Corps, or teaching overseas, but says he “just had so much respect for kids who put their lives on the line for the country” that he decided to join the Marines.
“I expected I would do exactly three and a half years,” he told me, “and the most excitement I might get was a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. I thought I would check that box and then never have to do it again, because for the rest of my life no one could question whether I’d done something to serve.”
Politicians often use their mentors as a means of signaling their values. After entering congress, Moulton established the Peter J. Gomes Service Award, which he bestows each year on a person in his congressional district who’s done some worthy, public-spirited deed. When I spent some time with Moulton in Massachusetts, a few weeks before the steak fry, his office had me come observe this award ceremony. I then followed Moulton around Lynn, a city at the southern end of his district, as he cheerleaded for local folks who were out doing good.
We visited a park where a dozen people were picking up litter, and I stood aside as Moulton posed for selfies with them. We went to a house being renovated to create a dorm for AmeriCorps volunteers, and I watched Moulton shake hands. We went to a homeless shelter, but due to an advance team screw-up, none of the administrators were on site—just actual homeless people, whom Moulton ignored, milling outside.
This sort of meticulously staged itinerary is a standard part of the political comms game. And, to be fair, Moulton’s constituents were genuinely happy to see him—tall and good-looking, wearing wraparound sunglasses—when he showed up to encourage their efforts. But I was getting cynical about the day. I’d hoped to spend some quality time getting to know this guy, and instead it felt like these Lynn folks had been coopted as a safe way to burnish Moulton’s image.
Then we reached our final stop. It was an odd tableau: an acre or two of farmland on a vacant lot in the middle of a down-at-the-heels residential neighborhood. When we arrived, some volunteers were harvesting vegetables so they could offer free, nutritious food to families who couldn’t otherwise afford fresh produce. Here, Moulton ditched his handlers and sat down at a picnic table to help sort and clean onions, preparing them for distribution. He wasn’t particularly at ease with the other do-gooders. But he was in it, just like they were, working, amiably chatting, doing actual service. He was still cleaning vegetables when I left to go back to my hotel room.
It’s difficult to question Moulton’s character—how can you not admire his military exploits or his support for noble community work? Part of me thinks he’ll be precisely what Democrats, and post-Trump America in general, will be looking for by the time it comes his turn in the spotlight. It’s not hard to imagine Hillary’s 2016 platform resonating better with the country had she been a white man and a war hero, with much less baggage. Nor is it hard to imagine integrity as an important factor in voters’ minds. Moulton might also become more comfortable and emotionally attuned as a candidate. After all, he’s worked incredibly hard and succeeded at almost everything else he’s done.
But after Lynn, and after Iowa, I still wasn’t convinced he can be successful on the national stage. Because the crux of the Moulton dilemma is that everything he’s done since his early 20s can be read as either an unimpeachable string of achievements (who wouldn’t vote for that guy?) or as carefully constructed prologue to a presidential run (I wouldn’t vote for that guy). He is both a prep schooler who draws hefty campaign donations from Wall Street and an upper-middle-class kid quick to note he’s still paying off student loans. He’s both a decorated combat veteran whom fate has called to nobly serve and a striver in a hurry who, before the age of 40, has written a myth-molding memoir titled Called to Serve. He’s so refreshingly wholesome he orders milk at lunch while declaring, “I love milk.” Or he’s so performatively wholesome he orders milk at lunch while declaring, “I love milk.”
“There will always be people who question your motives,” Moulton told me when I asked him about the scope of his ambition, hinting at the more cynical view of his résumé. “But I know why I’m here.”
Anyway, none of his deeply held values will matter if he isn’t a guy the Democratic coalition can get behind and isn’t a guy that disaffected heartland voters believe in.
As his steak fry speech came to a close, Moulton experimented with a rousing new finish he’d not tried before in public. He told the crowd that he went to a church in Dallas when he’d lived there briefly after grad school (pausing to note it was the same church that George W. Bush attended), and then he began to quote from a hymn he said they’d often sung there. “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” Moulton intoned. At this point, shifting his persona, he attempted to fire up the crowd with a preacher-style call and response. He urged us all to “raise up” the downtrodden among us—the homeless, the veterans “hampered by opioids.” His faux-gravelly preacher voice was tentative and forced. “Say it with me,” he yelled. Maybe it was the hot sun, maybe it was a long day, but the crowd was not fully on board. “We will raise you up!” he yelled again. “You can do better than that, Iowa. Say it with me.”