He has won praise from a neoconservative magazine editor, taken star turns on HBO and “This American Life,” and likened President Trump’s political ascendance to that of Adolf Hitler.
Just months into his second term, Representative Seth Moulton has demonstrated a knack for drawing attention. Now he is stirring speculation that he could run for higher office in three years — not just the US Senate, the frequent path of congressmen, but for the White House, a direct route from the House to the top job not taken since James A. Garfield in 1880.
The 38-year-old won his seat in 2014 by tackling a longtime incumbent of his own party. A decorated four-tour Marine veteran of the Iraq War with three Harvard degrees, he took out John Tierney in the Democratic primary.
But if his rare feat of unseating an incumbent in a primary drew notice, it has been Moulton’s persistent criticism of Trump that has elevated him to a national profile.
“He’s a combat veteran. I think he operates, and he learned how to operate, with courage, and he operates with courage daily, and I think that’s unique,” said Emily Cherniack, who helped recruit Moulton to run in 2014 and founded New Politics, which assists candidates with backgrounds in public service.
Speculation about prospective Democrats has begun to ripple through the party, most recently stoked by former vice president Joe Biden’s trip Sunday to New Hampshire, the nation’s first state to cast presidential primary votes. The escalated activity prompted a New York Times story Monday about the ranks of potential 2020 contenders, noting that Moulton has not ruled out a run in private conversations.
“Right now, this has less to do with Seth as a potential presidential candidate and more to do with the type of profile the electorate wants for a field of presidential candidates,” said one Moulton adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And it’s not somebody who’s over 70 years old, who’s been around a long time, and has the same name as somebody who ran for president 30 years ago. When you’re presented with that opportunity as a sitting member of Congress, you’re crazy if you don’t look at it.”
Moulton’s combat-earned credibility on military questions has allowed him to criticize Trump on national security matters in a way some Democrats have shied from. In a Boston Globe forum more than a year ago, he compared Trump’s rise to Hitler’s. After Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian air base last month, Moulton teamed with a Republican congressman to criticize the president for taking action without “clear goals and objectives.”
His hard line against Trump’s initial ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries prompted William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, to tweet that Moulton “spoke for me” when the Salem Democrat said Trump’s policies “put our troops’ lives at risk.”
During the previous administration, Moulton also objected to President Obama’s Middle East strategy, part of his pattern of taking on party elders. Last year, he threw his support behind Ohio Democratic US Representative Tim Ryan’s unsuccessful bid to wrest the House minority leadership from Nancy Pelosi.
Moulton confidantes downplay persistent Democratic rumors that he would seek to oust Democratic US Senator Edward J. Markey in 2020, saying that Moulton himself has never voiced a desire to do so. Moulton has said he will not challenge Republican Governor Charlie Baker next year.
And the official line from Moulton staffers is that an Oval Office bid in three years isn’t in the cards, either.
“He’s not running for president,” Moulton communications director Carrie Rankin said Monday. “Seth Moulton is not running for president.”
Moulton is far from alone in the state’s Washington delegation in seeking to join the anti-Trump vanguard. Senator Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly attacked Trump on a range of issues. US Representative Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat, has ratcheted up her own profile in a similar vein. A critique by US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, just a few years younger than Moulton, of a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act went viral.
Moulton has also demonstrated a willingness to flout the dictums of party seniority in a way most of his colleagues have not. His 2014 primary challenge to Tierney was frowned upon by party leaders, ill feelings that have not faded entirely among some establishment Democrats.
Still smarting from Trump’s election, some Democrats are pondering what lessons to take away from November and wondering whether their party’s biggest names — including Warren and Biden — are too old to take on Trump, who would be 74 on Election Day 2020.
Party strategists are also concerned about their party’s messaging on the economy, particularly since Trump snatched previously blue Rust Belt states that have been stung by manufacturing’s decline: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Moulton has an answer there, too, encouraging his party to talk about the challenges posed by automation.
“A lot of people are standing on factory floors right now not worried that their manager is going to replace them with an immigrant,” he said recently on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” an HBO program. “They’re worried their manager is going to replace them with a robot. And that’s what we gotta be talking about. And I think it’s actually a huge opportunity for Democrats in the next election to actually have a credible plan to deal with this.”
Party leaders call the still-nebulous Democratic field as bereft of an heir apparent as any in recent memory.
“There is no Democratic front-runner,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who chaired the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 election cycle.
Of Moulton, Rendell said, “I would put Seth Moulton in with anybody else . . . If he can raise the money to run a viable campaign, if he develops a good message, then he could emerge. If Joe Biden stays out, anybody can emerge. He’s probably looking at the field and thinking, ‘Hmm, I can do this’.”
In part, Moulton’s potential viability as a candidate may be helped along by Trump’s own success; after all, by 2020, if he wins reelection to his House seat in 2018, he would have six years of experience in elected office — six more than Trump the day he was inaugurated. And he will have two more years in office than then-senator Barack Obama when he captured the White House.
Already, one Internet outpost is encouraging a run with a Facebook fan page set up “because we believe he has the ability to win.”
But even the fan page seems to think the election three years hence might be too soon. It urges: “Seth Moulton for President 2024.”