A Conversation with John Delaney
By Josh Kurtz
Rep. John Delaney’s uniquely early announcement that he was running for president in 2020 was a bold and audacious move – even if it was met in some quarters with snickers or shrugs.
Three-term members of the House of Representatives aren’t usually national figures. And in 2020, it looks as if every Democrat of any stature – from those just legally old enough to serve as president, to those approaching their ninth decade – are at least pondering the race.
But Delaney has a very potent model: Former President Jimmy Carter. Whatever you may think of Carter and his presidency – and history, all these years later, still isn’t terribly kind – he ran one of the most brilliant, if improbable, campaigns for president in modern times.
“He got into the race very early,” Delaney said. “Nobody knew who he was. He made 32 trips to Iowa and he talked about bringing the country together after the wound of Watergate and he had a bunch of new ideas.”
Delaney has already been to Iowa several times since announcing his candidacy in late July – and to New Hampshire and South Carolina. He is putting a team together. And he has thought long and hard about what a presidential campaign might look like and how he can contribute to the dialogue.
And, of course, Delaney’s decision to leave Congress at the end of his current term has had a major impact on Maryland politics.
Maryland Matters had lunch with Delaney earlier this month at District Taco on Capitol Hill, to discuss how he decided to run for president, how he has begun to put his operation together, where he goes from here, and plenty more. A lightly-edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Maryland Matters: Can you take us through the thought process and how you came to run for president? Did you start off talking to family and friends? What was their reaction? Did it feel weird at first?
John Delaney: Yeah, it always feels a little weird at first. Saying I’m thinking of running for president or I’m going to run for president is not how you normally start a conversation, so that was a new experience for me. But I obviously started thinking about it after Hillary lost. It never crossed my mind that I’d be running for president in 2020 because I thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be president, and I was going to support her.
But I think the experience shocked me and made me look at things differently, as I think it should make everybody look at things differently, and it was pretty clear to me that the policies I’ve tried to advance and the approach I’ve tried to take toward government is what the country really needs.
MM: So what did your family think, what did you friends say, when you told them? Did anyone ever tell you you were crazy?
JD: My family was very supportive, [my wife] April was very supportive. I wouldn’t have done it without their support. So that was sort of a gating issue. I think if you try to do something like this without the support of your family, you’re setting yourself up for this to end very badly. So April was very supportive of it and my girls are as well. And my friends have been as well. People obviously understand the enormity of the task, and they understand that it’s a difficult thing to do.
MM: I assume you’re pretty clear-eyed about it as well.
JD: Of course.
MM: So what was the time period – what were those intervening weeks or months like when you decided to get ready?
JD: We started to think about it seriously, probably a February time-frame. And then I spent February to June really making a decision, consulting with friends, consulting with people with expertise in the matter. And then we made the decision at the end of June. And then we lived with the decision for a month because my view is you don’t know how you feel about a decision until you’ve made it, and I wanted to make the decision and then basically get up every day for a month and make sure it felt right.
MM: I assume one of the options you thought about during this period was running for governor.
JD: I did.
MM: Once you prepared to make your announcement, between June and July, did you focus on building an infrastructure in the critical states?
JD: I focused on two things – thinking through how I was going to announce it, because there are a lot of ways to do this, and I came up with the idea to just do an op-ed in The Washington Post. That felt like the best outcome in a variety of ways…And then I worked up the introductory video, so when people said, ‘Who is this person?’ there’d be one place for them to go to see how I was thinking about it.
So that was really the work that I did for that month, because when you enter a campaign at the last minute, you have to do a lot of things very quickly. When you enter a campaign with, shall we say, a decent amount of lead time [chuckles], I’ve always believed in that old Lincoln expression that you just paddle that next bend in the river. My first bend in the river was the announcement, so I was very focused on that.
MM: That certainly contrasts with your first race for Congress.
JD: Which was the opposite, right. Good memory there. That was only 90 days.
MM: That’s amazing.
JD: Wasn’t it, though? It felt longer. It was a fun race.
‘That’s the nice thing about clearing the field’
MM: So do you have staff now in the three early states?
JD: We have two people working in Iowa. In New Hampshire, we’re actively looking to hire someone, but there are critical races in November that we’re being actively supportive of…and meeting people involved in those races. I’m highly confident that we’ll be able to open our office in New Hampshire with some people who have been working those races. So that seemed like a better way than rushing, because everybody’s working on a race there who we’d want to hire. This November is not very far away, so we figured we could wait. And we’re interviewing someone in South Carolina.
MM: I assume there’s no shortage of events to do or people to see when you go to these states.
JD: That’s the nice thing about clearing the field [laughs].
MM: So is anybody saying “too soon?” – or not really?
JD: No, that was what I was most worried about. In thinking through my decision to do this and the timing of my decision, the one thing I was concerned about was that I would get to Iowa and New Hampshire and they would say, “this sounds interesting, but we’re not ready to get into it for another year.”
To say it was the exact opposite is an understatement. I would say half the meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire – because I went to those places pretty much right away – people literally thanked us for getting it started. And it makes sense now that I think about it. I’m mostly talking to Democrats, and normally, in any other time in our lives, if someone had announced they were running for president nine months into a new president’s term, they would say, “well, why don’t you give him a chance?” But there’s not a lot of that with Democrats right now.
I think [President Trump’s] behavior in the first 10 months in office has effectively disqualified him in the eyes of the Democratic Party and they have no interest in considering him being the president after 2020. Most of them don’t want to consider him being the president tomorrow, to be honest with you, so in some ways it’s actually welcome to talk about 2020, because if you know about the tension going on in our party it’s like we’re talking all about Trump and not talking about what we’re going to do.
I think a lot of the party knows that but they’re kind of overwhelmed dealing with all the stuff that’s coming out of the administration. So the fact that I’m willing to start the conversation about the next chapter is kind of welcoming to people because we can get back to focusing on Trump in a minute. I think it’s a bit of a break for them, if you know what I mean.
MM: How are people reacting to you and your message so far?
JD: I think excellent. Our message is about bringing the country together, that the Democratic Party should be the party that actually cares about good government and civility in politics, because we’re the party that actually believes that government could and should be doing transformative things. And if you look at the issues we care about, we actually need the government to do things. We can’t tolerate a broken government. And hyperpartisan politics has broken government and prevented us from doing anything. So that message is well received.
I talk a lot about the future, because no one talks a lot about the future in politics these days. It’s all a re-litigation of the past. And I talk about some ideas I have to make the economy more inclusive for all Americans. And so it’s very much a jobs, future, bring the country together message.
‘I don’t think Democrats are nearly as divided…as we think we are’
MM: Democrats are famous for re-litigating the past. Are the party activists you’re talking to willing to move past that?
JD: Here’s an example. We’re talking about NAFTA. In reality, talking about NAFTA is a complete waste of time. It’s a 30-year-old trade agreement, and the effects of it are completely baked in the cake. What we should be talking about is, ok, clearly certain parts of the country have been negatively affected by NAFTA, other places have been positively affected. That’s the thing about trade agreements – there are positives and negatives. Why don’t we spend some time talking about the things we have to do to help the parts of the country that have been negatively affected by these economic changes? That’s actually a constructive conversation to have. Re-litigating NAFTA is a waste of time. And when I talk to people like that, they really can’t counter that, because it’s true.
MM: What about the Hillary-Bernie divisions? Are you seeing evidence of that?
JD: I am.
MM: How do you solve that?
JD: That’s going to have to solve itself by new leadership and new candidates that people get behind. The point I like to make, which I really believe is true is, I don’t think Democrats are nearly as divided as a. we may think we are and b. the media like to portray…
Here’s an example: Pretty much every Democrat I serve with in the Congress believes climate change is a problem and human behavior is contributing to it. And very few Republicans believe that. So they’re in a very different universe in this discussion. We’re actually not only in the same planet in this discussion, we’re in the same little neighborhood, saying yes, we’ve got to deal with it. People have different views of how to deal with it. I prefer a carbon tax. Other people might prefer cap-and-trade. I’m sure there are other ideas, too.
Go to health care. Every Democrat that I serve with believes that every American ought to have health care, that we’re wealthy enough as a country, and that we should evolve to the point where it’s a basic right. Whether it’s single payer or something else, that’s a really good debate for us to have. The Republicans want to take health care away from 20 million people. So if we actually looked at this objectively, we’d realize that the divisions are not that big.
Now, maybe some people believe that the private economy, the private sector, is more of an enemy than others, right? People have different views about how we solve the problem. I’m hoping the process of selecting our nominee in 2020 will get us back to realizing that we’re actually fighting for the same thing and that debate should be the best way to achieve it. And that I think is an important job of anyone running for president – because we’re not going to win if we’re a small-tent party. I only think we’re going to win if we’re a big-tent party.
MM: You have a little over a year left in your congressional term. What do you realistically hope to accomplish in your term, and how will that help you going forward?
JD: We provide really good constituent service and I really want to make sure we run to the finish line on that. And the second thing is, I believe that, if [Republicans’] tax reform fails — it’s not really tax reform, it’s tax cuts — if that fails, and I think it will, there may be an opportunity, a limited window, to do an infrastructure tax reform deal, which is really the thing I’ve worked on the most…I think there’s going to be a window of opportunity, and I’m going to work really hard on that.
‘This is like the Jimmy Carter campaign’
MM: Looking at the White House race, obviously there will be several well-known people running and you probably saw that New York Times piece a couple of weeks ago where they listed 23 possible candidates. You weren’t among them. How do you break out?
JD: The best analogy for my campaign in many ways is Jimmy Carter’s campaign. So in 1974, I think it was, The New York Times did a list of 35 people who would be the next president. Jimmy Carter wasn’t on the list. Jimmy Carter got in the race very early…
When I went to Iowa last trip, a lot of people said this is like the Jimmy Carter campaign. He got into the race very early. Nobody knew who he was. He made 32 trips to Iowa and he talked about bringing the country together after the wound of Watergate and he had a bunch of new ideas. And this one very accomplished, seasoned and slightly older Iowa Democrat looked at me at the table and said, that’s your campaign as best I can tell. And I said, you know, you’re right. So I went on Amazon and I bought three books about the Jimmy Carter campaign.
MM: Have you read “Marathon” by Jules Witcover yet? That’s a great book.
JD: I haven’t read it yet. I’m reading the [Martin] Schram book [“Running for President 1976: The Carter Campaign’]. And the nice thing about books on the Carter campaign is they range in price from 99 cents to $4.99.
MM: Have you talked to the president himself about that?
JD: President Carter? I’m going to, but I haven’t yet. We’re getting nostalgic. But so my strategy is really pretty simple – to really outwork everyone in Iowa and New Hampshire and to stay with my message of bringing the country together. It may not be what’s dominating the narrative today, particularly inside the Beltway, but I think when you go out in real America and start talking to people, that’s what they really want their government to do for them. So that’s what I’m going to do – go out there more times than anyone else and really tell that message.
MM: So as you’ve joked, you’ve cleared the field so far, but when do you expect to see other people to get in?
JD: I don’t know. The traditional starting date is right after the midterms, so that would be my sense.
MM: But I expect you won’t have the J-J Dinner circuit to yourself after a while.
JD: No, no, no. We’re expecting there to be competition, let’s put it that way [laughs].
MM: Have given any thought yet to the degree to which you might self-fund?
JD: I’m thinking about it the same way I think about my congressional campaigns, which is we’re in the process of developing the strategy to run the campaign between now and Iowa and New Hampshire, to where we feel like we need to run to be to be successful. And we’re going to run that campaign, and I’m going to fundraise, and to the extent that we have shortfalls, I plan on investing in the campaign to make up the difference. I’m confident we’re going to run our campaign, I don’t know what that breakdown is going to be. But that’s how I think about it.
MM: Why ultimately didn’t you decide to run for governor?
JD: I think this is really the work for me to do. I think the country needs someone to run for president who has new ideas and wants to bring us together. And I think I’m the right person to do it. And I think for a variety of reasons I’m uniquely in a position in which I can do it, so I should. If you think about yourself – what’s the work for you to do at a particular moment of your life, this felt like the work for me to do at this particular moment of my life.
MM: This may sound like a weird question, but are there scenarios under which you would consider this a successful endeavor even if you don’t win?
JD: [Hesitates] Of course. But that’s not how I’m thinking about it. I’m in it to win. Based on all the analysis we’ve done, we see a very good path.
When you make a decision to do this, we asked ourselves three questions – and by me, I mean my wife and me. First, does it sound like something we want to do? Because you have to want to do this. I’m going to Iowa and New Hampshire four times a month between the two already. So you have to agree as a family that you want to do this.
MM: And remind me – what’s the age range of your four daughters?
JD: 10 to 24. The second question was, do we have something to say? Do we have something to add to the debate of this incredibly critical election? And the third question is, is there a path to winning? No one can say in a presidential election – it isn’t like a congressional election, where you can clear the field and say, “I’m going to win definitively.” Running for president is a much different undertaking. It involves both how well you do and what the mood of the country is. So do we see a path to winning? Absolutely.
‘I’ve been reading a lot of presidential speeches lately’
MM: Who are your political heroes?
JD: Everybody’s political hero is Abraham Lincoln. I’ve been reading a lot of presidential speeches lately. And I’ve got to say, when you go back and read those John F. Kennedy speeches, man, they really blow you away. And I thought that Bill Clinton really talked to the American people in a voice they hadn’t heard for a long time. I think it took courage for him to do that when he ran for president, and I see some similarities in some of the kinds of things I want to talk about, and I’ve been talking about.
MM: How do you think they’d deal with Trump, if they were running to defeat him, as you are?
JD: I think the way you beat Trump is to lay out an exciting, alternative vision. I think Secretary Clinton, who I was a big supporter of, as you know, ran a fitness campaign – Trump is not fit to be the president of the United States, that was her campaign. And I think ultimately the American people care about what you’re going to do for them. And look, I think Hillary tried that – she had great policies and great ideas, but at the end of the day the high level strategic decisions the campaign made about what message to emphasize and where to do it, was much more about his fitness than about what she was going to do for the American people.
I think this is a problem with the Democratic Party. We talked to voters about what we care about, not about what they care about. And voters at the end of the day care about their job, their pay, and opportunity for their kids. And every minute that we’re not talking about that, we better be darn certain that we have something important to say. I think we talk about a lot of issues that are important, that if we govern we can control and do these things, but at the end of the day I don’t think they’re really what the American people focus on.
MM: How do you explain the Trump phenomenon?
JD: The world’s changed very rapidly in the last several years, and the government of the United States hasn’t responded in a way that we needed it to to take care of the country and our people. Becoming part of the global economy was clearly the right thing to do. But it clearly hurt a lot of people and we didn’t do anything about it. And the reason we didn’t do anything about it is that the federal government in the last several decades really stopped doing anything.
I was in Austin, Texas, four months ago for a Georgetown [University] event and I had a couple of free hours, so I went over to the [Lyndon] Johnson Museum. Have you ever been there?
MM: It’s a great museum.
JD: It is a great museum. You’re struck by how much he did. And it was humbling to me and depressing to me, because I serve in the same body that did all of these things. You know, a slow week for Johnson was setting up public broadcasting. Like that was what you did during August recess.
It reminded me of something that I’ve always believed, which is that the cost of doing nothing is not nothing. The federal government’s failure to invest in communities that have been hollowed out, prepare our citizens for the new economy, redesign the social contract so people could be more secure in a rapidly changing world, has resulted in a lot of people feeling insecure. So I think the American people correctly diagnosed that there was a problem. But I think they incorrectly went to a remedy, which was Trump.
It’s shocking to me because he’s obviously the most narcissistic person that I’ve ever observed in my life. But it’s obvious he got a lot of people to think he was thinking of them. That’s why he won. Ultimately more people thought he was going to fight for them than we were.
MM: Do you think he’s actually going to be in office or running for re-election when 2020 rolls around?
JD: Who knows? In some ways he’s incredibly unimportant to my campaign, because I’m all about what I’m going to do if I’m the president. And when he does something terrible, which is a regular event, I’m going to fight it, because that’s my job as a member of Congress. So if he tries to take health care away from 20 million people or pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy, or ban people from seven Muslim countries from coming into this country, I’m going to fight that stuff like crazy. But when I’m not doing that, I’m not talking about him, I’m going to talk about what I want to do…
It’s an old-fashioned campaign in many ways. Campaigns are top-down or bottoms-up. If you’re famous, as Trump was, or if you’re famous because you do outrageous things, then it’s top-down. But I still think people can win a campaign by going to the people and having better ideas and convincing them of that. So that’s what I’m planning to do.