Former presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Seth Moulton open up about Coronavirus, Trump and more in remote interviews

Lila (top left) joins Boston Globe journalist John Vitti (top right), several other student journalists and O’Rourke (bottom right) to talk politics and more.

Lila (top left) joins Boston Globe journalist John Vitti (top right), several other student journalists and O’Rourke (bottom right) to talk politics and more.

Amera Lila, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

   Beto O’Rourke, although most commonly known for his 2020 presidential campaign, is a former three-term House of Representative member, representing Texas’ 16th congressional district. In 2018, O’Rourke ran for Senate and impressively acquired more votes than any Democrat in the history of Texas, but was unable to defeat his Republican opponent Ted Cruz.

   Announcing his presidential campaign in April of 2019, O’Rourke and his Democratic opponents took a similar stance on modern issues. O’Rourke supported a federal minimum wage of $15, legalization of recreational marijuana, an expansion on healthcare coverage, and eliminating the electoral college. Due to financial limitations and a lack of support from voters, O’Rourke suspended his campaign in early November and endorsed Joe Biden. 

   No longer a part of Congress, O’Rourke now aids in the Texas based organization Powered by People which is focused on state legislation elections. Powered by People brings together volunteers from around the state to work on the most important races in Texas. For the time being, it has been repurposed to employ volunteers to the 21 food banks in Texas, serving 254 counties. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, The Crimson Times was able to participate in a remote Q&A with O’Rourke from his home in El Paso, Texas.


Q: After the 9/11 attacks, the nation as a whole joined together to donate blood and money to causes supporting victims. With COVID-19, we are facing 20 times more deaths, why is the nation not uniting as it did in 2001? 

A: “In some ways, we are. I just finished a shift at the food bank here in El Paso, we are seeing lines that stretch two or three miles long. We are seeing unprecedented need, but we’re also seeing unprecedented response in terms of generosity and the community’s capacity here in El Paso to volunteer for a shift, to donate, to give back in some way. We see that across the country, not just in food banks, but with health care providers. New York was hit so hard, and not only did those frontline medical providers put their lives on the line, people drove from Texas, California, Ohio, and Wyoming to New York to risk their lives as well. I really do think we’ve seen a unity throughout the country in this shared national purpose and response to the greatest pandemic in the last hundred years. To the spirit of the question, politically, I think the moment has been lost. That’s owing to the most prominent politician in this country, inarguably the most important leader in America and the free world, the globe for that matter, Donald Trump who has threatened the blue states. At a press conference he said, ‘If you’re going to want federal help from the treasury, then you’re going to have to change your immigration policies in some of your states.’ Or, he’s tried to threaten or cajole Democratic governors by saying “If you don’t treat me right, if I don’t like the way you’re talking to me, you’re not going to get our kind of help.” He’s really pitted some people against others, he’s called for insurrection. You may have seen his Tweets where he asks the people of Virginia and Michigan to liberate themselves. Sewing that kind of chaos and confusion, nevermind openly suggesting that people inject disinfectants, or take unproven medications to cure themselves of COVID-19; He has not helped and further divided an already really polarized country. In the initial days after 9/11, George W. Bush really modeled the behavior that we want to see from a national leader. I think that was soon squandered through the wars that we’ve fought and through the kinds of tax cuts that were implemented without ever asking for most Americans to sacrifice or pay something forward to make sure that this country could truly come together. Fewer than 1% of Americans have served in the military since 9/11. So, the moment of national unity was squandered and that may have had some lasting effects on our ability to come together again in moments of national crisis like this one.” 


Q: During this pandemic, how can we encourage voters to cast a ballot instead of deciding to not vote for either candidate? How can we make voting more accessible?

A: “One hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, our descendants are cracking open their history book. When they read about the twenty-first century, they’re not going to be reading too much about 2005, they’re going to be reading about what happened in 2020. You had a global pandemic that in the last days of April had already claimed 60,000 of our fellow Americans. Disproportionately, people of color, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans. You had people dressed up in camouflage and battle gear with assault weapons on the state house steps demanding that the country be opened up. You had the president encouraging this kind of discord. How will history judge us in the way that we met this moment? There’s a big election on November 3rd, 2020, a reckoning for those who are in positions of public trust and power and have the opportunity to respond, we decide whether the response was commiserate with the crisis at hand. Or, whether we want new leadership. A lot of other things are going to be on the ballot as well but I think the response to COVID-19 will determine the outcome of those elections. If you were to sit at home on the sidelines and let this one pass you by, you would be implicated and indicted in whatever potential failing would follow. Our great grandchildren reading back on us and saying, ‘How did they respond to this? Did they rise to the challenge? Did they select new leadership? Did they assert their will through what is arguably the world’s greatest democracy? Or, did they just take a break and sit on the sidelines, and just hope that this would figure itself out?’ That’s kind of the choice that I see before us. Taking a break or sitting this one out is just not an option, you may love or hate Donald Trump, you may love or hate Joe Biden but to not make a decision is still a choice in this. Whether we care about the response to COVID or climate change, which could very well undermine our descendants ability to live on this planet, gun violence which claims 100 people per day, healthcare in a country where people are still dying of the flu and curable cancers in the wealthiest and most powerful place on the planet; All that stuff is in one way or another going to be decided and defined by the choices that we make in November. So, that would be my impassioned plea for people to get off their butts and vote.”


Q: Regarding your presidential campaign, what was the biggest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it? 

A: “Well, I think by the results we’d have to agree that I don’t think I overcame the challenges that I faced. When I was running for senate in Texas against Ted Cruz, no one knew my name. I live in and represented the western most county in a state of 254 counties, the only county in the mountain time zone. In some ways, it could not be geographically, physically, and maybe in some other ways, politically, more apart from Texas. There was an incredible freedom that came with that as a candidate, to travel to the other 253 counties and to meet people. I went to every single county and it didn’t matter if two people showed up, or when Willie Nelson helped me bring together a crowd. 60,000 people showed up in Austin, Texas Auditorium Shores. The goal was the same, to connect with people, listen to people, be with people, and not to have any interference. No TV ads, no pollsters, no consultants, just person to person, human to human, eyeball to eyeball. The presidential campaign began far differently. There were extraordinary expectations, I was one of the most well known Democrats in the country at that point. Perhaps because of the way that we ran that Senate campaign in Texas, and how close we came to defeating Ted Cruz in a state where no one ever thought that was possible. I think I unwittingly played into much of that expectation in the kind of interviews I did, the kind of magazines I was featured in, the kind of Oprah that I participated in. In some ways, I lost sight of what was most thrilling and exciting to politics in the first place, which again, is being in those rooms, or clubs, or bars, wherever you find people and connecting with them. That’s the root, the essence, and the bones of politics and coming in with those very high expectations is super hard to overcome because I’m not that guy. I didn’t want to be a media personality or a celebrity, I wanted to be a person in that room with you connecting. When we started the campaign, it was a circus. I remember it was the first day, first stop of the campaign in Iowa in a little diner, maybe 25, 30 people showed up. But, there were also 25 or 30 members of the press who had shown up as well and it became almost impossible to have that raw, authentic, honest conversation that I wanted to have. Everything was being filmed live and disseminated, and then dissected and analyzed and burped back up to me for my response. That was just a really weird, strange, painful ordeal. That was very hard to get over and to get through. I wish we had found some way to start lower on the radar and free of much of that circus-y atmosphere that is part  and parcel of presidential politics.” 


Q: In comparison to the Republican Party, who will support Donald Trump despite him constantly bashing the members of that party, do you feel that the Democratic Party is disjointed? If so, how is that hindering the success of the Democratic candidates?

A: “The short answer to your question is yes. You’re probably familiar with the famous Will Rogers quote, ‘I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.’ I think that’s just as true today in 2020 as it was when he first said that. You mentioned the devotion within the Republican party to Donald Trump, the last poll I saw a couple of months ago, tellingly it was in the middle of the impeachment trial. Trump’s approval rating was 94% in the Republican party which to me, given everything that that person has done makes the Republican party look a lot more like a cult or at least a cult of personality than a true independent political party. You asked, what are the challenges for a fractured Democratic party? There are some Democrats who were really excited about Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or really excited about somebody else, but not Joe Biden. They say, ‘I’m sitting this one out, I can’t vote for Donald Trump in good conscience, but I can’t get behind Biden.’ The answer to your question, and the answer to that challenge posed by disaffected former supporters of non-successful presidential candidates will, in some ways, determine whether Biden is able to prevail over Trump in November. He’s got the task of bringing together a somewhat divided Democratic party, and hopefully having the common purpose in defeating Donald Trump but, I would argue that is not sufficient. That was kind of the common purpose behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign. As extraordinarily prepared as she was and is to be president of the United States, as many amazing plans as she had to improve this country, for so many Americans her argument came down to, ‘Donald Trump is crazy and you don’t want that guy in the White House.’ That was not sufficient, at least not for the electoral college, she won three million more votes in the popular vote but not the electoral college. Biden has to unite us against Trump but he also has to unite us for something and I don’t know that he’s fully articulated what that something is yet. He talks about the soul of America which I think is important but I think he’s going to have to have a clarified and concise and compelling message around which even the most disaffected Democrats can rally. If he does that, I think he can win. You may have seen the most recent national polling, he’s up between nine to eleven points. There’s a new poll that came out today in Texas, Texas with 38 electoral college votes, Texas which was last won by a Democrat in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, Texas has Joe Biden up by a point over Donald Trump right now. That could be a major game changer but we’ve got to bring the party together.”


Q: What was it like on the debate stage?

A: “Honestly, it’s awful. To try to respond to a critical issue like climate change, or gun violence, or criminal justice and do so in 60 seconds or rebut someone’s accusation made of me in 45 seconds, when you’re on the stage with nine other candidates live on TV and in front of an audience, it’s just nuts! In my opinion, and I don’t get to pick the rules, it’s not the best way to select the next leader of the free world but so be it. That’s the way it is. I really had a hard time with the first debate and it really showed. I was uneven, was not strong, was nervous. I had everything that was dumped in my head from a very great campaign team. ‘Here’s all the opposition research on Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren’ and that’s just not me. I don’t want to unload on anybody else, I want to talk about why the hell I’m running in the first place. What excites me, what I think America should be able to do on these issues. Those debates, like much of our media environment today, really favor the sizzling, scintillating, sensational punch that you can land. It’s going to provoke a response and a reaction. Some folks are great at that, I am not one of them. So that may have been a sign that I probably might not be cut out for this kind of presidential campaign at this moment. Is there a way to improve them? I think so. I don’t know how you still allow 20 candidates to compete and participate and get meaningful dialogue and conversations and ideas, but I know that we can figure it out. I actually believe, though this is counterintuitive, our attention spans are much longer than we give ourselves credit for. We’re willing to read a longer piece or hear more than a 30 second answer from somebody. I think we could get a lot of value from those candidates and make a more informed decision.”


* * *


   Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer, and current Congressman of Massachusetts’ 6th district, is “working to put people over politics [and] ensure that every American has the opportunity to succeed, and tackle the towering challenges of today and tomorrow.” 

   Growing up, being a politician wasn’t a goal for Moulton. “It wasn’t until the Iraq war that I came face to face with the importance of politics,” he said.

    “I saw the consequences of failed leadership in Washington when I was on the ground as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. There was a day in 2004 when a young marine in my platoon said to me, ‘You know sir, you need to run for Congress some day so that this doesn’t happen again.’” 

   After being recruited by an organization that assists veterans running for Congress, Moulton realized that the political scene will never change if people of his background and experience don’t speak out. 

   Running in 2014 against an 18-year incumbent, Moulton states that the politicians with a larger platform (Warren, Kennedy, and Markey) campaigned against him. However, his message remained clear. 

   “We need honest, authentic leadership and we need to be willing to listen to people on all sides. Yes, take strong stands on the issues, but not do so for partisan reasons,” Moulton said.  

   Taking the victory, Moulton was the only Democrat to unseat an incumbent in the primary. 

   Following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Moulton realized that he needed to further his involvement in politics. He began an organization titled “Serve America”, a program that has helped to launch several other veterans into politics, a key to winning back the House in 2018. Of the 40 seats flipped to reclaim the House, half were Serve America candidates.

   In order to make his goals work on a larger scale, Moulton joined the 2020 presidential race. In April of 2019, Moulton announced his candidacy, his platform being focused on having a trustworthy leader that is for the people, as well as shining light on his own experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Suspending his campaign abruptly due to lack of Democratic voters in the primaries, Moulton continues to work towards a future where Donald Trump does not hold the presidential title. 


Q: Why did you decide to run for president, and what was your experience while doing it?

A: “The first answer is really simple, I ran for president because I thought it was the best way I could serve the country. I think that Donald Trump is going to be very hard to beat, there are a lot of analogies now to George W. Bush. He totally botched the Iraq war, but it took awhile for people to figure that out. There was a lot of rallying around the flag in 2004, so despite the Iraq war, he was re-elected. I worry that despite Coronavirus and Trump’s botched response to it, he could be re-elected. The point is, I’ve always thought that Trump is going to be harder to beat than we like to think. I didn’t think there was a better foil for him than a young combat veteran. I was the only combat veteran in the race during a time when we are still in the longest war in American history. I got into the race too late, my timing was poor and whatnot, I’m glad I did it though. I always want to do what I think is best to serve the country and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from the experience.”


Q: How did serving in Baghdad prepare you for dealing with Coronavirus?

A: “The leadership skills that you learn in the military, and I do believe they are skills, the Marine Corps especially believes that leadership is taught, not just something you’re naturally born with. The leadership skills that I learned in the military are absolutely applicable to what we’re trying to deal with today. When you first show up to military training, you very quickly learn that if you drop out of a run, they’ll probably let you try again. If you fail a test, they’ll let you retake the test. But, if you lie about anything, you are gone that night. That’s how important integrity is to the United States Marine Corps. Honest leadership is unbelievably important in a pandemic like this. People need to know that they can trust what is being said, and I would say that the number one complaint with Trump is not just his ineptitude at managing a situation like this, but the fact that people cannot trust what he says. That’s a lesson that is incredibly applicable to what’s going on here right now. 


Q: What is Massachusetts doing to combat the Coronavirus that is different from other states?

A: “The state just started contract tracing, they’re doing it in partnership with Partners In Health which is Dr. Paul Farmer’s organization. It’s world famous for the work that they’ve done, including a lot of work with epidemics and specifically using contact tracing to help stop them. Paul Farmer is one of the most famous doctors in the world right now and I’m very fortunate to have him on a very small scientific advisory panel that I’ve had for weeks now, helping my team navigate this epidemic. Paul is working with Partners Brigham and the state to implement what will probably be the first in the nation contact tracing program that will use different methods to figure out who has come in contact with someone who is confirmed positive for COVID-19, and therefore needs to self quarantine. Doing this effectively will be incredibly important to being able to safely open back up the country. It’s not going to be enough on its own, it’s not a perfect system, but contact tracing is a proven method to help reduce the spread, not stop, but reduce the spread of disease. This is a great example of something that should absolutely be coming straight from the White House. If we had an effective leader as our Commander in Chief, he’d be pushing this out and getting the best minds in America to lead it. Massachusetts is fortunate to have some of the best minds right here but the state is going to have to take initiative because the federal government is not getting it done.”


Q: Could you share your praise/criticism on the work that’s been done on a federal level in Washington, the White House, and Congress regarding COVID-19?

A: “We’ve been totally behind on this and I don’t think there’s anyone who has been more behind than the president and his administration. They, we now know, have been receiving intelligence briefings on COVID-19 since November. Yet, well in January, early February, he was completely downplaying the virus saying that it’s not a big deal, saying that it’ll miraculously go away. He had his son on Fox News calling it ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome,’ in other words, literally blaming it on Democrats and saying, ‘This is not a real thing, this is just Democrats trying to smudge the president.’ All that time, we could have been stockpiling personal protective equipment, we could’ve been making ventilators, we could’ve been doing all these sorts of things that we’ve been scrambling to do right now because we weren’t on top of this. I will also tell you, Congress is behind. Congress is totally behind on figuring out how to do remote work. A quick anecdote, when I saw this was expanding exponentially I said, ‘We have got to get ready to work from home.’ I went to our IT guy and I said, ‘How ready are we if we have to have everybody working from home tomorrow?’ He said, ‘Everybody can do it except Joey, he’s new to the team and he doesn’t have an iPad or a laptop.’ I was like, ‘Alright, get Joey a laptop by tomorrow,’ and we did that. I asked, ‘How many other offices on Capitol Hill are ready to work remotely?’ His answer was exactly zero. Everybody has been behind on this and that unfortunately has cost lives.”