“I’m a different kind of Democrat,” Maryland Congressman John Delaney gladly admitted to Iowa Democrats on his inaugural trip to the caucus kick-off state this past week.
The former co-founder of two successful banking firms, Delaney is also looking to run a different type of presidential campaign than other 2020 hopefuls. He officially announced his candidacy for the White House last month and – much like other presidential contenders – hit up the Iowa State Fair, just a few years earlier than most. He also met with Democratic leaders and key activists in the state to start planning out an Iowa operation.
Democrats could see upwards of 20 candidates jump into the party’s 2020 primary at some point. Delaney hopes to get a head start on them, but he’s also looking to stand out in his approach by running what he calls an “authentic campaign” that addresses the biggest challenges facing America, even if it strays from partisan talking points.
“We’re having the wrong conversation,” he told Starting Line in an interview last week. “If you step out of politics for a second and you talk to people in business, non-profit, academia and you ask them what’s important in the world, they will say the most important forces in the world are technological innovation, automation, artificial intelligence, global interconnections. These things are completely reshaping society, work, jobs, security threats, resource allocation, demographics.”
Fears about those things and not actual facts or solutions are what badly hurt Democrats in 2016, Delaney believes. And that’s where he hopes his life experiences can provide a better way forward for the party.
Delaney grew up in New Jersey, the son of an IBEW union electrician father. He went into the banking and finance world after college, co-founding two companies that went on to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Those financial firms provided loans and capital to mid-sized healthcare providers and small businesses.
He ran for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District (Western Maryland and some of the D.C. suburbs) in 2012 and won, winning reelection two times after. He self-funded part of his campaigns along the way, and is one of Congress’ wealthiest members.
Since arriving in Congress, Delaney has focused on issues of business innovation, climate change and infrastructure. He’s a pro-trade Democrat, an issue that was at the heart of voting shifts in 2016 and could impact the next presidential race. But Delaney pushes back on the idea that some on the left and Donald Trump supporters hold that engaging in global trade was the problem.
“That was not the problem with trade agreements,” Delaney said. “If you make a decision that on balance [a trade agreement] is the right thing to do, you have to then commit yourself to do things for the people who are going to get hurt by it. That’s where we’ve failed with trade. It wasn’t a bad decision to engage globally. And how could it be? 50 years ago the global poverty rate was 75%. Today the global poverty rate is 25%. The only reason that’s changed is because the world has become connected.”
But Trump very effectively used the lingering frustration over the economic inequities that NAFTA created in parts of the country as a wedge with voters in the election. Delaney pointed to the disconnect that came when Democrats failed to adequately plan for the people hurt by those changes.
“We have to invest in those communities,” Delaney asserted. “We have to not leave those people behind. But we didn’t. We wrote them off.”
But lingering on that fact only does so much for addressing the country’s next economic challenges.
“Was NAFTA a good decision?” Delaney asked. “Well in reality, NAFTA is already baked in the cake. So whether it was a good decision or not is actually irrelevant to what we do today. So what I want to do is run a future-first campaign … When you re-litigate fights of the past, you basically just go back to the same old arguments and positions. It’s almost like powerful magnets – that once you enter the magnetic field, you’re just sucked to one side.”
That’s what Delaney aims to avoid in 2020: refighting past battles. And that’s not so much about Democratic candidates getting bogged down in old fights, but so that the party can spend more time preparing for the future and prevent recreating some of the same problems.
For Delaney, that next major issue is artificial intelligence. Just as global trade shifted job opportunities from one area to another, rapid advances in computer capabilities are quickly reshaping today’s economy and will bring both benefits and challenges. Delaney founded the U.S. House’s Artificial Intelligence Caucus earlier this year to help legislators begin to better address the issue.
“Are we going to let this next wave play out the same way that trade did?” he questioned. “We should obviously have a free-market economy, but there’s a role for government to set some of the rules and take care of people who are negatively affected by some of these changes.”
Those changes are going to happen one way or another, Delaney argues. Preparing for that future so that American workers don’t get hurt by it will be key both for the country and the Democratic Party’s prospects. Offering better solutions for a changing economy, rather than demagoguing on it or avoiding difficult truths might avoid the voter backlash that Trump stoked so well. Because in many ways, Delaney says, it all comes back to economics for many voters.
“What are we going to do for their job?” he said. “What are we going to do for job prospects for their children? Are they going to have rising wages?”
The biggest impediment to that effort is the other thing Delaney looks to focus his campaign on: partisan politics.
“I think partisanship has ruined politics,” he said. “It’s really prevented us from doing anything. I’ve always believed the cost of doing nothing is not nothing … I’m a loyal Democrat, I believe in the values of the Democratic Party, which is why I’m a Democrat, but I’m an American first. My campaign is going to be about putting country ahead of party … We need to restore civility and respect to the profession of public service and start getting stuff done.”
By the time 2020 rolls around, Delaney is hopeful that voter fatigue from a chaotic Trump presidency will allow policy-focused candidates like himself to emerge from a crowded Democratic pack. And a large part of his presidential campaign will revolve around Iowa, where he sees a constituency for more in-depth issue discussion.
The first step in that process will simply be listening – and he plans on making frequent stops in Iowa throughout 2017 and 2018. That includes listening to communities that may have turned away from Democrats in recent years in order to start building up trust again. Delaney has already seen problems with trust issues with farmers, who he’s tried to reach out to over climate change issues that he thinks they should embrace.
“We’re having a hard time talking to the agricultural community because they feel like in a lot of areas we’ve regulated them to pieces,” Delaney explained. “So unless you’re willing to listen to what they have to say there … and don’t presume you know the answers when you’ve never lived in an agricultural community, and unless you do something about their concerns that are legitimate, don’t expect them to listen to you about what you think is important.”
In that way Iowa will offer up a perfect test for 2020 hopefuls like Delaney – a state that shifted hard to the right in 2016 is a good testing ground for new ideas to bring Democrats back to power. The Maryland congressman will have plenty of time to figure out if his message about the country’s future will resonate or not for the next Iowa Caucus.
by Pat Rynard