In an age of hyper-partisanship, Rep. John Delaney is willing to bet his comfortable seat in Congress that voters are hungry for moderation.
The Maryland Democrat is diving head-first into the White House bid he launched last month, using the long August recess to tour the country in hopes of building a national profile and laying the foundation for his long-shot 2020 run.
After a bitterly fought national campaign that highlighted both an across-the-board discontent with the status quo and the drastic polarization of right versus left in 2016, Delaney is calling for something like a truce by urging a new era of bipartisan cooperation. In doing so, he’s promising no less than an end to the partisan discord that’s cleaved the country and all but paralyzed congressional efforts to accomplish major legislative changes.
“The government’s broken, the government refuses to work together because they put the party over country,” Delaney said Friday by phone from Aspen, Colo., where he was meeting with groups to build support.
“I’d be willing to make a very big bet that in a couple of years what the country’s going to want is someone who can bring us together, who can stop the partisan fighting and talk about actually getting a few things done.
“In fact, I’m making the biggest bet I could possibly make with my career by doing this.”
Delaney is giving up his House seat –– and almost certain reelection in 2018 –– to demonstrate his commitment to the task. And in an age when campaign cycles grow longer by the year, he’s taken the trend to new extremes by announcing his candidacy almost 40 months in advance.
“There’s no reason not to spend this amount of time preparing and running for the most important job in the country,” he said about his early start. “There probably are people who are running for president right now. They just haven’t been honest about it.”
For a third-term lawmaker with low name recognition, the timing makes some sense, according to election experts.
“For a candidate who is a very much an underdog and an unknown to most voters, there is a certain logic to starting early,” said David Karol, an expert in presidential races at the University of Maryland.
Karol noted that both George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, and Jimmy Carter, who won the White House in 1976, broke new ground by announcing their candidacies almost two years ahead of those elections. Yet Delaney’s strategy to forego reelection in 2018 carries risks, he warned.
“The standard thing for presidential aspirants on the ballot for governor/senator/representative in a midterm election is to be coy and win re-election before openly declaring their candidacy for president,” Karol said. “This allows them to avoid the awkwardness of asking voters to support them when they are already clearly focused on a different job.”
Delaney’s early messaging blueprint –– “the elevator pitch,” he calls it –– features three prongs focused largely on empowering American workers to compete in the 21st century economy. First, he’s promoting better access to education and training programs to make workers more “nimble” in the event of job disruptions. Second, he wants to expand employee benefits while making them transferable across jobs. And third, he’s pushing for aggressive ways to shore up the nation’s finances and tackle climate change –– problems he characterizes, collectively, as “the incredible intergenerational debt we’re leaving our kids.”
“You don’t have to have a three-hour white-board session to get most Americans to understand the world is changing, and it’s changing pretty rapidly,” he said. “Change can be very beneficial, but we have to be careful because it’s not going to be beneficial for everyone.”
Delaney brings a unique perspective to the debate. Raised in a blue-collar, union family, he rose quickly in the business world and is now the only former CEO of a publicly traded company in Congress.
The experience made him enormously wealthy –– the Center for Responsive Politics ranks him the fifth richest member of Congress, with an estimated worth of $215 million –– and he’s vowing to tap that reserve to underwrite part of his campaign — though he declined to commit to a figure.
“When our fundraising hasn’t matched our budget, then I will personally invest,” he said.
With his business background, Delaney is quick to tout the private sector as “a miraculous machine for the progress” –– one that sometimes needs a nudge from government, but not overly burdensome mandates.
“I don’t come to this debate at all vilifying the private economy, [but] I do want to have capitalism become more just and inclusive,” he said. “That’s where I see government stepping in, to set the rules of the road and create those incentives.”
That message, while likely to attract conservatives and give credence to his bipartisan pitch, also risks alienating some liberal Democrats, who were invigorated last year by the surprising primary success of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) –– a sharp critic of corporate power –– and are galvanizing once again in response to the business-friendly policies of President Trump.
Delaney downplayed any significant rifts between himself and the Democratic faithful, noting his strong support for the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, an increase in the minimum wage and an expansion of Medicare to include everyone over the age of 55. But he also acknowledged degrees of difference between his economic policies and those of his more liberal colleagues.
“That is a slightly different approach than you hear from a lot of Democrats, who basically want to blame the private economy and [say] the government can solve those problems,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Delaney’s moderate message has any chance of resonating in a highly partisan environment where litmus tests of ideological purity seem ever more important to each party’s base.
Delaney, for his part, has already committed to testing those waters.
“If we can go back to giving people wins, as opposed to an ‘I win, you lose’ mentality, I think that does change the debate quite substantially,” he said.
“The American people are increasingly growing tired of it. They might not have been tired of excessive partisanship 10, 12 years ago, but I think they’re tired of it now.”