The first debates of the 2020 election cycle are behind us, after 20 democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage, spread over two nights, in Miami this week. The candidates sparred on a range of hot-button issues, including health care, foreign policy, immigration and race relations. Congressman Seth Moulton was not on that stage either night, as he did not meet the debate's polling and fundraising requirements. He shared his views on the debates and on the issues with WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: As we look back at the questions that were asked over the past two nights, I'd like to pose a couple to you. Would you abolish private health insurance in America?
Congressman Seth Moulton: No, I wouldn't. And I say that as the only candidate in this race who actually gets single-payer health care, because I made a commitment to continue going to the V.A. even as a member of Congress. Along with my fellow veterans, I said, 'Look if they're going there, I'm going to get V.A. care too so that we can fix this problem.' And I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of a single-payer health care. So I want to make sure that every American has the option, a public option like President Obama wanted, to get government health care if they want. But I'm not going to force people onto a government plan. I think competition between a public option and private health care plans will bring down prices for everybody.
Mathieu: Understood. Would your health care plan, then, Congressman, provide coverage for undocumented immigrants?
Moulton: It would through the public option, just because that is a good investment. It prevents them from having to come to the emergency room at the last minute when they get in terrible trouble, which ultimately costs all of us, costs the entire health care system more money. Of course, we have to fix our immigration system, because we shouldn't have so many undocumented people in this country. We should have a pathway to citizenship for those who are part of our community and part of our economy. We should have a safe and humane immigration system that includes strong borders but also stops separating families.
Mathieu: Congressman Moulton, there's been a lot of talk this morning about the dust up between Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden about his recent comments about working with segregationists. You know a lot about this as a lawmaker. To be fair, here, both Democratic senators, like James Eastland, and Republicans, like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, working with Joe Biden. Should the former vice president be punished for that? Should this be an issue in this race?
Moulton: Well, the reality is that he's clearly offended some people, including Senator Harris. And I've said since this issue first came up the vice president should simply apologize and move on. I don't think that Vice President Joe Biden, who is a mentor and a friend, is a racist. And Senator Harris doesn't think so either. But if you offend someone by talking about issues of race, or anything else, there's nothing wrong with just apologizing and saying, 'Look, this is what I was trying to say, but if I offended you, then that's wrong.'
I think what he was trying to say, is that sometimes when you're a lawmaker, you have to work with people that you don't always like, and you don't always agree with. And that is a reality of the system that both Vice President Biden and Senator Harris understand. But if the vice president offended her, why not just apologize? I don't see what's wrong with that.
Mathieu: Congressman Moulton, moderators also called out Joe Biden last night in round two, for initially supporting the Iraq War. I know this is something that you have criticized him for as well and is very personal for you as an Iraq War veteran.
Moulton: That's right. And it's another place where I think that it's okay to just say you were wrong. People ask me all the time, does this disqualify him from the race? No, but it's a mistake that he should acknowledge, because we've got to stop making mistakes like that in the future. We're talking about this at a time when this administration has us on the brink of going to war with Iran.
And there are a lot of parallels with what got us into Iraq. Some of the same people, like John Bolton, pushing for war against a commander in chief, this time Trump but formerly Bush, both of whom really don't have the credibility to keep us out of war, because they dodged serving in war themselves. So it's a very dangerous situation for the country, and it's why we need a commander in chief that we trust. A commander in chief who has a plan, a commander in chief who can be unequivocal about our national security, but also prevents us from getting into war. That's what I would do with Iran.
Mathieu: And to add to that, Congressman Moulton, if you were commander in chief how would you address military spending? We've been hearing a lot from President Trump on a military buildup, a military he says was depleted under the Obama administration.
Moulton: Well, Trump obviously doesn't know anything about the military, because when he had an opportunity to serve, he lied about his feet to get out of it, and someone had to go to Vietnam in his place. So here's what I would do. It's time to have a sweeping modernization of our Department of Defense, because we're not equipped to meet the rising threats of Russia and China in space, on the internet, through hypersonics and other new technologies. But we also have to cut out the old system that are legacy systems from the cold war, that cost a lot of money, and that we don't need anymore.
We're not worried about Russia sending tanks into Eastern Europe, but we are worried about Russia attacking us through the internet and undermining our election system. That's just one example of why we need to modernize our Department of Defense. The good news is that if you do this, you can actually save a lot of money. And I would invest that money in diplomacy. I'm one of those veterans like General Mattis who says, if you cut the State Department you have to buy the Department of Defense more ammunition. We need to focus on avoiding wars before they start, rather than getting into them. And so if you modernize the Department of Defense, save money, you can invest it in more diplomacy.
Mathieu: Congressman Seth Moulton, with us live on WGBH's Morning Edition. We have less than a minute here, Congressman, although you've already had more time than some of the candidates seemed to get over the past two nights because it was so crowded. One question asked to everyone, what is the first issue you would tackle as president?
Moulton: The first issue I would tackle is bringing this country together. And that's one thing I didn't hear enough of last night. We had a great debate on the issues, I'm sure the Washington pundits loved it. But ultimately, if we're going to win this election, we have to build a coalition, a coalition of all the Democrats, plus Independents — those Obama-Trump voters — and even some disaffected Republicans. And we have to build that coalition not only to win the election, but to make sure that we can actually get things done in 2021. I've never seen the country more divided, and if we don't bring this country together first, then we're not going to be able to advance any of our priorities, whether they're on the economy on health care or on keeping the nation safe. So I want to hear more talk about unity in this party. And that's what my campaign is all about.