An Interview With Representative John Delaney, Democratic Candidate for President
Rep. John Delaney, the United States Representative for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, is the first Democratic candidate to announce a run for president in 2020. Formerly an entrepreneur and banker whose work in the private sector distinguished him in 2004 as Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Delaney has announced his bid over two and a half years before the Iowa caucuses.
Delaney hopes to use his record of bipartisan leadership and civility with those across the aisle to draw attention to his platform and achieve national name recognition. As the son of a union electrician who grew up in a blue collar household, Delaney is pro-business and more centrist than the Democratic candidates who many speculate will take center stage in the 2020 election. Instead, he hopes that his focus on innovation and progress will strike a chord with voters. His early bid for the presidency has certainly raised eyebrows, particularly at a time when Democrats are grappling internally with the question of whether to push their platform more to the left. Despite the intraparty conflict, Delaney maintains that his bipartisan tendencies and forward-looking ideology, combined with his early announcement, will give him ample time to formulate a platform based on the needs of the American people.
The Politic contacted John Delaney to speak with him about the future of the Democratic Party, the unprecedented nature of the 2020 campaign, and the political reality that he hopes to forge as president.
The Politic: Tell me a little bit about your political vision for America. Do you think it’s a departure from the politics of the Democratic Party in the last election?
John Delaney: Well, I think one of the ways it’s different is that I’m very much focused on the future. I tend to think too much of the political discourse about the past, or re-litigating different versions of the past, which is kind of interesting, but not all that relevant. What I’m trying to do is have very much a future-focused campaign, because I think what’s happening in the world is fairly obvious. The biggest trends are technology, automation, and global interconnections, and these things are changing everything. They’re changing society, they’re changing work, they’re changing jobs, they’re changing resource allocation, they’re changing security risk. And my vision is to prepare the country, and most importantly our citizens, for that future. And I think there are three things we need to do. We need to make the country more entrepreneurial, we need to make sure our citizens are more secure in their skills, and with respect to their health and their retirement, so that they can engage in that world as successfully as possible, and then we need to do a much better job with our research allocation, both fiscal and with environmental resources, so that your generation—and the generation to come after you—are not left with these kinds of obligations that we’re passing on.
[Senator] Chuck Schumer released an op-ed in The New York Times—“A Better Deal for America”—that seemed to espouse the policy goals moving forward for the Democratic Party. Do you think the Democrats are moving in the right direction? Are you on the same page, or are you forging a new path for the party?
I think that most Democrats are generally pursuing the same goals. I mean the difference between me and many of the other Democrats is that I actually believe we should try to find common ground and get things done. And that there should be more civility and respect, and bipartisan instincts in government. Because our government wasn’t designed so that one party could jam something through on a party line basis, even if that does happen every once in a while. So, I have a different approach to governing. I also think, again, my orientation is much more based [on] what’s happening, and looking at the facts and how the future will unfold, and I think that’s a different approach. And as a result, I’m a lot more open minded. Some of the things I want to do are very, very consistent with the progressive agenda, but some of the things I want to do, quite frankly, probably originate from some conservative thinking.
You’ve been getting this question a lot, but you are the first Democratic candidate to announce your bid for the 2020 presidency. Could you tell me about why you chose to do this so early in the game?
This is probably the entrepreneur in me, but I look at this job as the biggest job in the world. And having more time to carefully and thoughtfully prepare for it, and introduce myself to voters, and give voters an opportunity hear my vision for the country strikes me as a very big asset. It’s also, to be honest with you, there are people who are probably running for president right now that just aren’t saying it. And I just think that people are kind of tired of that. Public service should not be about a career, it should be about what kind of contribution you could make if you had the privilege of being a steward of the country. I’d rather just be honest about what’s going on, and what I’m doing, and the way I think we should govern, and the kind of things we should all work to achieve. I just think that’s a more straightforward way to do it. And I kind of want to focus on those things. I mean, if you look at it historically, this country did amazing things, and we’ve kind of lost our ability to do that. Because there’s so much dishonesty and corruption, a lack of transparency, all of these things that make it impossible for it to work. So I want to start my campaign as honest as I possibly can about my intentions. And then having that be the correct start to a campaign about honesty and truthfulness and transparency.
In the 2016 presidential election, the Democrats seemed to prioritize a lot of time and financial investment on those who were tentatively supporting Donald Trump, or to those who were conservative working class voters. As a result, the turnout for a lot of the traditional Democratic coalition, and in particular African-American voters, dropped significantly. How will your platform find this middle ground between preserving the old liberal coalition, and winning votes from voters who might feel alienated from the Democrats, or who might have voted for Trump?
I don’t come to this thinking that micro-targeting is the right way to campaign or govern. You should have a broad message that you think can help hopefully all Americans. And obviously voters have different things they’re interested in, depending on their perspective. Like there are a lot of people who think the number one issue in the world is climate change. A lot of people think the number one issue is the lack of public investment in our country, in our infrastructure. There’s a lot of people who worry about foreign policy, there’s a lot of people who worry about criminal justice reform. These are all very legitimate things. So I just think that, you know, what cuts across different groups are more of the attributes of a person as opposed to their specific policies. I mean, people are just teed in on what they’re interested in from a policy perspective, but I think what they care about is whether you’re honest, whether you have the values that people look for in a leader, and whether you’re being respectful in how you act with them, and that you bring some sincerity and, quite frankly, humility to it. So I think those are the things that actually cut across different sub-groups of voters, and those are the things that go to people’s hearts. I tend to think Americans have more in common than they have differences, but then what goes to their head is—you know, you may care particularly about climate change, and one of your colleagues may care more about criminal justice reform. So those people are going to dig in on the policy. But what really goes to the heart tends to transcend all voters.
If you really talk to people about what they want, they’ll say, “Oh, well I really care a lot about this, but what I’m really looking for is someone who…” and then they sort of describe the characteristics they look for in a life partner, in some ways. Right? I mean, people get married to people who have different views on all kinds of things. But what they’re attracted to are their values, their attributes, the things that make us people. And so I think you’re right. What “white working class voters” care about, and what the minority communities who live in cities care about—sure they have different views. You know, if you work on a farm and work in agriculture, you focus on things differently than if you take public transportation every day. Right? And you have to be respectful of those differences and realize that people actually legitimately care about different things. But what brings people together, I tend to think, are the values a person has and their aspirations for the country. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think I’m [providing] an optimistic, future-focused vision, where we can actually help all of our citizens. I think that’s what people want to hear.
You’ve really made no overt mention of Trump, both in your interviews and your candidacy announcements, and I want to know if it’s deliberate. There is kind of this sense that people are running on an anti-Trump platform as a means to create unity between Democrats who might be fractured. So, is it deliberate that you’re not talking about the president right now?
No, it’s not deliberate. I think that—maybe I’ve moved to a point where, the policies and approach to governing are so bad that the American people will, very quickly, move on from him and his party. What’s really important for us to do is to make sure we’re laying out a vision for our future and for the country that people find compelling. Because I think Democrats have two jobs. As an elected official—I’m a Member of Congress, and I have to think of myself these days as having two jobs. The first is to fight and resist Trump when he tries to do something bad. So if he’s banning Muslims, or taking away healthcare from 20 million people, I’m at the airport protesting, I’m doing things in Congress to try and derail their various attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But I also feel some obligation to tell people what I’m going to do. So it’s not intentional. I just think Donald Trump is going to—and he may have already—but he certainly will, at some point, ruin the Republican Party for a time being, and he will ruin himself. Everyone who affiliated themselves with him will not be able to recover, politically or professionally, and it will be an opportunity for Democrats to actually show the country what we’re all about, what we think we can do for them, and how we can govern. And I think it’s incredibly important for Democrats to come together and try to unify around a vision, even if we have different ways of getting there. We all want healthcare for everyone, and we have different ways of achieving that. We all think education should start in Pre-K and should be free, or at least until community college. And we all have different ways of getting their. Those paths, or those goals, are all worthy of significant discussion and debate, but I think we have to realize we’re pursuing the same thing. We ought to unify around that. We ought to think about the person who has the vested ability to not only govern but to communicate that vision. We need to come together, because President Trump will give us, as a party, a pretty significant opportunity to show our stuff.
What do you anticipate will be the largest struggle for you as a candidate?
First of all, that’s a very good question. I’d say resisting the temptation to always live in the moment. Good journalists are obviously very focused on the moment, because your job is to uncover the truth no matter where it lies, even if it’s hidden, which it often is. You have to make sure people understand what’s happening—that’s the fundamental responsibility of a free press and a strong journalistic culture. But what [an] elected official’s job is, obviously to do things on a daily basis and to deal with the president and to speak the truth, but we also have to have a vision of the future, and we have to sometimes try to do things that may not have a significant effect for years down the line. And you know, I think today there’s such a temptation to just live in the moment. Which is why people just want to talk about Trump. And as opposed to saying, for example, look what automation is likely to do this whole category of workers—it may not happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen—so what are we going to do about it? Like that’s not an in the moment conversation, right? Nothing kind of blew up, or no tweet went out to prompt that, but, just worrying that a decent amount of time is focused on that can be frustrating. We’re not really wired that way right now, but my bet is that in the next couple of years the American people are going to be looking for something different, but right now we’re wired to be in the moment.
You’ve been labeled in a variety of publications as a technocrat. Is that an appropriate categorization? What do you think of that label?
Look, if people are using that label to say that I’m actually focused on the facts, and on policy and solutions, then I think it is accurate to say I’m those things. But I also think I’m an entrepreneur at my core—I started two companies that went on to be publicly traded at the New York Stock Exchange, I was voted Entrepreneur of the Year back in 2004. Entrepreneurs generally aren’t technocrats by nature, they kind of have a vision and they go for it. So I think I’m good at strategy and I’m good at execution, and when people see me good at execution they think I’m a technocrat. But really why I’m running, if you read my op-ed in The Washington Post, is about a vision for how this country can be better.
Do you anticipate that the 2020 election will bring more of this racially charged or divisive political language? Do you have any way to handle that if it were to arise in a campaign?
It’s a fine line between whether people are saying things either directly or indirectly or whether it’s a design to kind of stimulate some kind of blatant racism. I think you just have to call that out. You just have to call it out. I have zero tolerance for that, not only in my own life, but in anything I’m associated with. But I think people are scared of the economic changes that are happening because of technology and globalization, and it’s causing them to think about isolationism from a purely economic standpoint. I think our job there is different. I come from this perspective that being interconnected globally, and open societies, are incredibly positive. I look at the fact that—and I’m a little over 50 years old—but when I was born, 75% of the world lived in poverty and 25% of it was interconnected globally. Today, it’s the inverse—75% of the world is interconnected and the global poverty rate is down to 25%. So the facts favor the optimist here. I mean these things are very positive, but not they’re not positive for everyone all the time. And I think the failure of policy across the last several decades was not the decision to become part of a global economy and encourage open societies. The failure was not recognizing what the negatives of doing that would be and addressing them. We basically failed to invest in our country, in our people, in infrastructure and communities and education, and at the same time we engaged globally. And that was clearly a formula for the people who were the most blessed at birth to do well, and it was a formula for the people who were not to struggle. So the nation is really becoming a nation of birthright, not one of opportunity, because of a failure to invest.
Where do you get your news?
So, well I get it in digitally and on paper. The papers I read on a regular basis are The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I read The Atlantic magazine, The Economist, and then because of my job now I also read the political news. But by my judgment the two best long-form magazines by any measure are The Atlantic and The Economist. That’s where I go when I want some long form. Because, as you know, the best story on what’s happened is written a week after it happened. Because the stuff that’s being written when it’s happening is just designed to uncover what is happening, but you get better journalism after the fact. So I try to balance what I read. I think The Washington Post is the best newspaper in the country right now in terms of really doing their job, so I read the Post every day pretty much section by section, cover-to-cover.
What place would you most like to visit?
I’d like to go to New Zealand.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I’d be starting another business.
Which living person do you most admire?
Pope Francis right now.
What keeps you up at night?
I have four kids, and someone once told me an expression: you’re only as happy as your least happy child. So, you’re not at this stage of your life yet, but you always worry the most about your kids. But I worry about what’s happening to our country. I’m worried about how the nastiness of this political discourse is really ruining the country. That really bothers me.
What are you reading right now?
You know what, I’m not reading any books right now. Because starting about three or four weeks ago I’ve just been doubling down and preparing.
What advice would you give college students?
So this is a little reflective of my own college experience but, I think people should really study and pursue what they’re interested in. But they definitely have to think long-term about what’s happening in the world. And they do have to be strategic about how their interests and how the world is changing merge together.
What is the biggest threat to democracy right now?
The biggest threat to democracy is people really being misinformed about the truth.
What shocked you the most about the 2016 presidential election?
The outcome. I wasn’t expecting President Trump to win.