Rep. John Delaney may not be the presidential candidate Democrats want. But the wealthy, low-profile congressman and newly minted 2020 hopeful believes he’s what the country needs.
Delaney, whose district stretches from some of Maryland’s wealthiest D.C. suburbs to rural counties bordering West Virginia, thinks his combination of private and public sector experience, and his faith in both, are the answer. His campaign motto, at least for now, is “Focus on the Future.” And Delaney is planning a campaign focused on problems caused by globalization, automation and technology, issues he says are getting ignored in a hopeless national political conversation.
“You need a villain in politics,” Delaney said in an interview. “My villain is partisan politics. It’s destroying our ability to govern.”
Indeed, Delaney did not once mention Democrats’ villain-in-chief, President Donald Trump, in the Washington Post op-ed announcing his candidacy on Friday, 30 months before the Iowa caucuses. But there is little guarantee that argument will stick in a hotly contested primary, with voters who will find much else to criticize in Delaney’s three-term congressional record.
It is one of many long-shot aspects of Delaney’s bid. His decision to retire from Congress and seek the presidency generated at least as much confusion as enthusiasm. Politically, the biggest immediate impact was in Montgomery County, where multiple Maryland state legislators are already vying for Delaney’s House seat.
But perhaps it’s no accident that Delaney is the first presidential candidate to kick off a campaign since Donald Trump vanquished what was supposedly the deepest and most talented Republican primary field ever, rewriting the rules of legitimacy for seeking the White House.
Democrats could easily see a field of 20 or more candidates run in 2020, potentially including other members of the House (Ohio’s Tim Ryan and Iraq War veteran Seth Moulton of Massachusetts are considered possibilities), mayors and former Cabinet secretaries to go along with the usual array of governors and senators.
“I don’t consider myself a longshot,” Delaney said.
History disagrees. No member of the House has won the presidency since James Garfield in 1880, and no member of the House has set foot on a presidential ticket since Geraldine Ferraro became Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.
More critically, Delaney’s policy views and background have never looked less aligned with the increasingly populist and left-leaning Democratic base.
The now-dead Trans-Pacific Partnership? Delaney supported it, costing him the backing of the AFL-CIO in Maryland. In his launch video, Delaney declares “attacking banks won’t win the day.” Hes sponsored a bill that would create a commission to look at reforming Social Security.
Delaney is also unabashedly interested in working with Republicans and touting their support. A former Republican member of Congress, New York’s Richard Hanna, stars in Delaney’s announcement video. And Delaney’s signature legislative priority — allowing companies to repatriate money stored overseas at a lower tax rate and spending the government revenue on infrastructure — attracted Republican co-sponsors.
Delaney rejects the idea that he’s a centrist. “I don’t think of myself as a moderate. My instincts are clearly progressive,” Delaney said, pointing to his personal investment in a coalition to raise Maryland’s minimum wage and his support for a carbon tax.
But he added: “I’m a big believer in the private economy and market forces, but I also believe there’s a role for government in setting the rules of the road and helping take care of the most vulnerable.”
Delaney also argues the differences within the Democratic Party aren’t as great as they seem, as he prepares to test that thesis in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Relative to Republicans, we’re on a completely different planet,” Delaney said, elaborating that Democrats are arguing about how best to expand health care coverage — he supports allowing people over the age of 55 to buy into Medicare — while Republicans were proposing legislation to roll back Medicaid. “The differences between Democrats disappear when you expand the aperture to include Republicans.”
Delaney’s early background could appeal to some Democrats. He grew up in a union household in New Jersey, and neither of his parents attended college. He went to Columbia University with the help of a scholarship from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and then on to Georgetown Law.
But Delaney also made his fortune taking two small banks onto the New York Stock Exchange, and now has a social circle that includes Chief Justice John Roberts and philanthropist Katherine Bradley (the wife of Atlantic owner David Bradley).
While he spent millions on his first bid for Congress, Delaney said he doesn’t plan on self-funding his presidential bid extensively. Instead, he plans on relying on his personal fortune to “smooth over” gaps in fundraising over the next three years. He said he entered this early to get a head start on building his name ID and decided to skip an exploratory committee so he won’t have to do a “weird song and dance” when reporters ask if he’s running. He plans on attending this year’s Iowa State fair, and expects a bigger launch event after the 2018 midterm elections.
“I understand the scale of this undertaking,” he said. “I’m not particularly well-known nationally, so I have to act like I’m a long-distance swimmer. I want to get in the pool first.”