Politics

The Kamikaze Candidate: Inside Seth Moulton’s Bid for the White House

What do you do if you’re Massachusetts’ third-most-famous member of Congress, and best known for launching a failed coup against Nancy Pelosi? If you’re Seth Moulton, you run for president, of course.


Congressman Seth Moulton, who has represented the state’s sixth district in Washington ever since he pulled off an unexpected political upset in 2014, is hoping he can surprise again by clinching the Democratic presidential nomination. / Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP images

Speaking to a packed house in the Newburyport middle school auditorium in May 2017, Mayor Donna Holaday began her introduction of Congressman Seth Moulton with a recap of what has come to be known as one of the most enviable résumés in politics. Four tours of duty in Iraq, two of them serving directly under legendary General David Petraeus. A Harvard undergrad degree, plus master’s degrees from the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. Holaday breathlessly recalled qualities Petraeus once attributed to Moulton—off-the-charts courage, innovativeness, sheer determination—before quoting Moulton himself: “I know what is important in my life, and it is that I help serve other people. The best way I can do that is to be a good congressman, a great representative to the people of the district. Right now, that’s what I’m focused on.” Holaday closed her remarks by asking the crowd to welcome “our dedicated, passionate, hardworking, and rising star, Congressman Seth Moulton.”

And did they ever.

The crowd erupted in a wild chorus of applause and rose to their feet in an ovation as Moulton, clad in khakis and a blue oxford, walked onto the stage and took the mike. “This is not where I expected to be when I was sitting in my own middle school auditorium back in Marblehead,” he told the audience. “I ran for school treasurer in seventh grade and lost decisively and didn’t seem to have much of a future in politics. This was the second thing I’ve ever run for.”

Moulton had been elected just three years earlier in a fabled political upset when, as a newcomer, he beat nine-term incumbent John Tierney for the Democratic nomination in the sixth congressional district. The aspiring politician’s youth, good looks, modesty, and bulletproof credentials had energized the electorate, and it wasn’t long before he was being touted as potential presidential material.

Flash-forward 18 months, and the scene at a town-hall meeting just 5 miles away in Amesbury couldn’t have been more different. It was just a few weeks after Democrats had taken control of the House in the midterm elections, and Moulton, alongside other insurgent Democrats, had just launched a mini revolution to block Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. During the meeting, angry women stood up and spoke passionately about the error of his ways. Others sat in the audience with green placards in support of Pelosi. When Moulton told the crowd that a majority of Democrats and Americans wanted the changes he stood for, critics in the crowd interrupted him with a vociferous and scathing “No!”

Moulton’s coup attempt was squashed not long after that meeting, but it was not forgotten. The North Shore congressman earned scorn in his district, derision in the press, and enemies in his own party in Washington. He and the other leaders of the putsch were labeled #FiveWhiteGuys online by their critics for trying to take down a woman. There were even rumblings that Moulton would face stiff punishment from his party in the form of a female Democratic challenger in 2020. Meanwhile, in the wake of the 2018 midterms, Moulton’s cred as a fresh, young face in politics had been largely eclipsed by, well, fresher and younger faces, including women such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, from his own backyard in Massachusetts. It seemed that he had suddenly hit the lowest point in his short and once-promising political career.

So what does an early-career politician do in his darkest hour? Well, if you’re Seth Moulton, you decide to run for the highest office in the land. Fueled by what he describes as an unwavering desire to serve his country and what others describe as unrelenting ambition, Moulton announced in April that he would add his name to the ever-growing roster of candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is unclear where Moulton fits in—or stands out—in a field essentially divided into two camps. He doesn’t have the experience of the older guard, such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. In the younger, newer wing, he is less well known, for instance, than Beto O’Rourke and less charismatic than Pete Buttigieg. He is neither a trustworthy warhorse with a track record nor a shiny new thing.

And then there is the issue of what he is. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Moulton’s former campaign adviser called and urged him to run for president because he was the right guy at the right moment. But since then, the country and the party have changed. If ever there was a moment when being a wholesome, white, straight Harvard man was a strike against you while running for office (or for any endeavor), it might be now. Moulton may well have gone from being the right guy at the right moment to being the white guy at the wrong moment.

Worse still, observers predict the ghost of Nancy Pelosi will come back to haunt Moulton on the campaign trail. Across the country, that’s the only thing most voters know about him, if they know him at all.

Meanwhile, back at home, those who already knew him are wondering if they ever really did, and his seat in Congress is now suddenly in play. Moulton’s presidential journey is only just beginning, but in Massachusetts, the end of his political career may already be under way.

Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk

Moulton has spent a lifetime making surprising decisions. A between-the-lines reading of his sterling résumé reveals the story of a serial insurgent, someone who appears to chafe at and rebel against expectations. He grew up in Marblehead, the son of die-hard liberals who had protested the Vietnam War. As was chronicled in the pages of this magazine, his mother, Lynn, didn’t allow her children to ever play with toy guns—not even a squirt gun. Moulton was the kid squirting water at his friends out of the mouth of a plastic fish.

As a Harvard undergrad, he found a mentor in the famed author, minister, and theologian Peter Gomes, who steered Moulton toward a life of service. “He told me, ‘Around Cambridge there are a lot of people who believe in service, and support those who serve, writing checks all the time,’” Moulton says. “But he said that that’s not enough—you’ve got to go serve and find a way yourself to give back.” But Gomes didn’t have in mind—nor love the idea of—Moulton joining the military. And yet, weeks shy of graduating Harvard, with an endless horizon of opportunities available to him, Moulton enlisted in the Marines just before 9/11. Later, when his second tour ended and he was free to join his fellow soldiers who were going home, he deferred his acceptance to graduate school and reenlisted.

His unconventional career path likely contributed to the attention he got from the press during his years as a solider. “We don’t have a whole lot of people who go to Harvard undergraduate school sign up for the Marine Corps,” says David Gergen, an aide to four former presidents and a Moulton fan. In interviews, Moulton often spoke freely about his opposition to the war that he was risking his life to fight and his disenchantment with the civilian leadership back home. In a radio story about the Battle of Najaf, he told NPR that “There’s one thing that [President George W. Bush] can’t order us to do, and that’s how to vote in November.” He was even more critical of the Bush administration’s postwar efforts in the Oscar-nominated 2007 documentary No End in Sight, which concludes with the camera on Moulton describing, in harsh and emotional terms, his feelings of betrayal. “Are you telling me that’s the best America can do?” he asks the camera. “No. Don’t tell me that…. Don’t tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that that’s the best America can do.” He pauses momentarily to choke back his disgust. “That makes me angry.”

Moulton left the Marines for good in 2008 and returned to Cambridge to attend HBS and the Kennedy School of Government. While his classmates marched off en masse to New York, he turned down a job offer at Goldman Sachs to launch a since-failed weight-loss startup in the United States and the Middle East. Afterward, he moved to Texas to become managing director of a company seeking to build high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas.

A year before the 2014 elections, Emily Cherniack, a Boston-based political recruiter whose goal is to get more veterans to run for office, approached Moulton about running for Congress. Doing so, though, would mean taking on nine-term Democratic incumbent John Tierney in the primary, and carried the risk of infuriating the very party Moulton wished to join. Moulton went for it.

Tierney had been politically wounded since his wife’s conviction on tax fraud several years earlier, but still had the unwavering support of party leaders, many of whom were angry over Moulton’s decision to run. Needless to say, things didn’t get off to a good start. “[Moulton] was told by his campaign director, ‘You’ve got to quit, you’re 50 points back, you’ll never make it,’” Gergen recalls. “And so he fired him and got his driver to run the campaign.”

Moulton went on to win the primary by nearly 11 points.

During the general-election campaign against Republican Richard Tisei, the Globe revealed that Moulton had twice been decorated for heroism on the battlefield, but that only one person—a former Marine—on his campaign staff knew about it. Moulton hadn’t even told his parents. In an age when many candidates and public figures have boasted about far smaller accomplishments (or accomplishments that were not even their own), Moulton waged his own quiet rebellion against this, too. News of his medals established him publicly as a war hero. News of his modesty established him in the state’s psyche as a political hero, and he went on to defeat Tisei by 14 points. By the time he marched off to Washington, Moulton was a rising political star, a man to watch. He was already living in the future tense.

Moulton’s résumé is beyond reproach: four tours of duty in Iraq, three degrees from Harvard, and two medals for bravery on the battlefield that he told almost no one about. / Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP images

On a chilly Saturday late this past March, I drove up to Salem to meet Moulton for lunch at an Indian restaurant a few short blocks from his district office. As he made his way through an order of chicken korma, our conversation inevitably turned to the topic of Pelosi and the failed coup. Moulton was quick to correct me: The coup hadn’t targeted only Pelosi, but the entire Democratic leadership in the House. As far as he was concerned, there were no hard feelings. “It’s nothing against any of these leaders personally,” he told me between bites. “I think Speaker Pelosi is a remarkable politician. But as a Marine in my platoon put it to me when we were talking about the changing economy and the future of work, ‘Seth, everybody in Washington trying to figure this out are the same folks that had 12 a.m. flashing on their VCRs for 30 years.’ And there’s some truth to that. And the good news is that there’s a new generation of people who helped their parents program those VCRs.… And I think that this new generation is ready to lead.”

And yet Moulton, Tim Ryan of Ohio, and the other House members who headed up the group of insurgents didn’t exactly show off their leadership skills with the coup attempt, which was doomed from the start. The group lacked the requisite number of opposition votes and didn’t have a clear, committed alternative to Pelosi they were supporting. Within days, Pelosi had picked off her challengers, bringing them to her side with promises of committee appointments and by agreeing to establish term limits for party leadership positions. In other words: She outsmarted, outmaneuvered, and out-politicked Moulton and his fellow rebels, and was elected speaker.

In the aftermath, many Democrats, some accusing Moulton of sexism, ageism, and egotism, were incensed. Even his one-time campaign adviser, Scott Ferson, said he found the Pelosi affair to be politically tone deaf and ill advised. Republicans, meanwhile, were amused by the Democratic civil war in the House. “For those asking,” joked Matt Gorman, the National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, “Moulton is not on our payroll.”

Moulton’s maneuvering also left political analysts confounded. “If you try to take out a king or a queen, you better not miss,” says WBZ’s Jon Keller. “He missed, and missed badly. He didn’t understand his fellow members, or even the mentality of his own supporters. He had a list of supporters in disappearing ink.”

Over lunch, I shared with Moulton how at a recent family birthday party, I mentioned that I was writing about him and someone, only half-jokingly, said, “Oh yeah, Seth Moulton. He’s the turncoat who went after Nancy Pelosi.”

Moulton was indignant.

“Turncoat? I’m the only one who stuck to my guns,” he said, adding, “I wish I could share the dozens of conversations with colleagues who have come to me privately and said, ‘Thank you for doing that, Seth. You did the right thing.’ Because they know that we need change as well.”

From Moulton’s perspective, he was just doing as Moulton does: saying what others are too scared to say and standing by it, come what may. He was simply the guy willing to take enemy fire for a cause he believed in.

In fact, the way Moulton sees it, the failed coup was actually not only a victory, but an example of successful brinkmanship. “In some ways,” he told me, “we never would have gotten the deal [for term limits] if we hadn’t been fighting to change the top three leaders, but in some ways the deal we got is better than just changing the top three leaders. I mean, what if my colleagues and I were responsible for three new leaders who were there for 20 years? So I’m proud of what we achieved. But I also understand that when you stick your head up to lead, sometimes you get shot at, and you’ve got to be willing to take the heat.”

Moulton is not alone in seeing success in what so many viewed as a phenomenal political gaffe. “He got exactly what he was after,” says Colette Phillips, a Boston public relations consultant who knows Moulton. “He got the Democratic leadership to open the doors and put younger freshmen on powerful committees. He got Pelosi to agree to term limits. He may have lost the battle, but he won the war.”

Regardless of whether people see it that way, Gergen thinks even those who disagreed with Moulton’s actions are likely over it. “At one point I thought he was in danger,” he said. “I think it has largely passed.”

At least that’s what Moulton is banking on.

Moulton’s leadership of a failed coup against Nancy Pelosi in the wake of the midterm elections was called a colossal gaffe by critics and alienated many female voters. / Photo by Susan Walsh/AP images

On the morning of April 22, Moulton’s official presidential announcement appeared on YouTube. It starts as a pictorial representation of his life story—from the halls of Harvard to the battlefields of Iraq—and segues to a montage of American miseries (job-stealing robots, the opioid crisis, a food bank) before featuring Moulton as a young Marine fighting in a war he disagreed with. Next it goes in for the requisite kill, deriding our current president (shots of Trump shaking Vladimir Putin’s hand and of migrants caged like animals), then pulls out for a paean to a younger generation of change makers (cue the uplifting music) in pink hats and at anti-gun rallies. It ends with calendar-worthy flyover images of the Statue of Liberty, Boston Harbor, New England in the fall, what looks like L.A., what is definitely St. Louis, and, finally, a typical farm scene in the American heartland. All the while, it features Moulton in various angles of wholesomeness: clad in plaid flannel, leaning over the side of a fishing boat, and hoisting a smiling baby (his) into the air.

The announcement came after months of visits to conspicuous states like New Hampshire and Iowa; a couple of weeks of an online “Should Seth Run?” poll; and days of leaks—Moulton spotted filming an announcement video, Moulton assembling a team. By the time he finally announced, the Democratic field was already a standing-room-only affair, filled with well-known candidates polling high and newer faces catching fire. “While he was playing Hamlet,” WBZ’s Keller says, “the others were lapping him.”

Soon after the video dropped, Moulton popped up in kitchens throughout the country across from George Stephanopoulos on the set of Good Morning America, bright-eyed and enthusiastically gushing, “I am here to tell you and America that I am running for president of the United States!”

This demeanor may not be surprising for a 40-year-old man who still drinks milk. At meals. Some of which are not breakfast. But back in Massachusetts, beneath his all-American, wholesome veneer, his critics see him as too calculating, too presumptuous, too rushed. Moulton was always viewed as ambitious, even for a politician, and seemed like he was in a hurry to get somewhere, but few thought it would be a presidential run in 2020. Some thought he would challenge Senator Ed Markey for his seat. One reporter asked Moulton if he would run for governor, while another noted the rumors that he had presidential aspirations and asked him if he would run—in 2024. “When people go into Congress,” Keller says, “they [either] stay in there building seniority to become a long-term congressman, like Joe Moakley, or work hard, do a good job, and then look at opportunities in the Senate. Then there are some who are just flat-out looking for the next big thing. I fear Moulton falls into that group.”

Moulton’s entire post-college existence has been self-described as a quest to serve and to promote service among others. He says his march toward the White House is no exception. The opening line of his announcement video speaks of the moment when he was “called to service,” which is, incidentally, more or less the title of his forthcoming book, Called to Serve. But it’s hard not to wonder if Moulton’s presidential quest is really as much about service as about his own ambition and ego.

Then there’s the question of what he has accomplished during his two and a half terms in Congress. For her part, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll says Moulton has been very accessible and has his finger on the pulse of the city. He has also recently helped bring a $500 million-plus military contract to General Electric’s River Works plant in Lynn. Tierney’s former finance chairman turned Moulton supporter, Barry Weiner, notes that Moulton helped secure $6 million for a dredging project to benefit the fishing industry in Gloucester, something locals had been seeking without success for many years. Even Democratic strategist and Moulton critic Mary Anne Marsh concedes that where “he delivered was in recruiting veterans to run for office, and many of them were successful.” Ultimately, 21 of the 43 Democratic candidates who flipped Republican seats in the House in 2018 got help from Moulton’s Serve America PAC.

Still, it wasn’t what some had hoped would be his focus. “There is humiliating economic pressure on people, and I was hoping Seth would concentrate on that front,” says Ferson, his former campaign adviser. “He took a different path, promoting servicepeople into leadership. It’s worthy, but it’s not what I’m looking for in
a candidate.”

Others question Moulton’s narrow legislative focus. Fully 32 percent of the bills he has sponsored have had to do with veterans’ affairs, including two of the only four bills he’s sponsored that have become law. “His legislative accomplishments are few and far between,” Keller says. “On vets, he has delivered. But vets are a small slice of his district. What else?”

Here’s the answer: One of his other successful bills allows government employees to use Uber, Lyft, and bike-sharing programs. Another named a post office in Lynn.

While anything is possible in politics, it is a fairly safe bet to assume that Moulton will not win the Democratic nomination for president. Nor is he likely to be on the nominee’s ticket. But the future may be even more bleak. After this, he may never be coming back.

Moulton has said he won’t forfeit his seat in Congress to run for president, unless he gets the nomination. But some believe it could be taken from him. “He thinks he can simultaneously run for president and run for reelection, and that by having run for president, it will put him in better standing than where he is now in his own district. That’s flawed thinking,” Marsh says, adding that people in his district deserve someone who is focused on their needs, morning, noon, and night. After all, she says, Moulton has already lost support among many local women over the Pelosi affair. Now that he has chosen to run for president, it will be seen by some as though he’s turning his back on his own district.

Days after Moulton announced his candidacy for president, a former campaign volunteer for Moulton’s 2014 Republican challenger said she would run as a Democrat for his seat. Other, better-known women in politics may follow. In an intriguing twist, Tierney supporters are encouraging him to win back the seat he lost to Moulton; at press time, he reportedly was considering it.

So what could Moulton possibly be getting out of a race he has so little chance of winning? And how could a moon-shot attempt be worth the very real risk of losing his congressional seat? Especially since the sixth district is the place where he has the opportunity to do what he says is so important to him: serve.

As I pondered this question, I called another person who, from his perch as an author and a magazine editor, had promoted the idea of a service revolution decades earlier. Like most people I spoke to, Charles Peters, the longtime editor of the Washington Monthly and a keen political observer, was highly skeptical that Moulton could win the nomination. But he saw something that would make the effort worth it. “I would love for the sacrificial lamb to come along and wage the fight” for service, Peters told me. “Because that’s the only way it’s going to get public attention—for someone, an appealing candidate, to adopt it as a cause.”

I found this notion intriguing. By Peters’s reckoning, a failed Moulton bid for the presidency could amount to a different kind of service. Even in losing, Moulton would be presenting voters with the case for the importance of service to causes greater than themselves. Maybe the idea would gain some traction. Would Moulton be cool with it if that’s how things shake out, considering service is what matters most to him? Perhaps he is really just happy to run so he can spread the word and get his message out. After all, isn’t he the guy who was willing to take enemy fire during the attempted House coup because it was a cause he believed in?

I broached the subject with him during our March lunch, having just spoken with Peters the day before. Moulton made it abundantly clear that that was not the sort of service he had in mind. “I’m not going to get into the race to be a sacrificial lamb,” he told me. “I’m in it to win.”