‘The Democratic Party as a whole is in a really bad spot’: Trump’s first 2020 challenger is a different kind of Democrat — and he thinks that helps him

Rep John Delaney art
Rep. John Delaney of Maryland. Business Insider/Mike Nudelman

Rep. John Delaney raised eyebrows last month when he declared that not only would he not run for governor of his home state of Maryland, but he would also not seek reelection in 2018.

Both moves were because he’s running for president.

“I have both a vision for how the country can govern itself better, because we’ve basically gotten to the point now as a federal government where we can’t do anything, and I think there is a very high cost associated with doing nothing, which is where we are,” Delaney said in an interview with Business Insider this week.

In an era when populist outrage often dictates the discourse in political parties, Delaney is a peculiar politician to become the first Democratic presidential candidate.

He’s a self-made banker who proudly touts his bipartisan bona fides, offers full-throated endorsements of market solutions, and has one of the highest ratings from law-enforcement groups.

In the interview, the Maryland congressman laid out his vision for breaking the Washington fever and offered criticism of his party’s attempt to reach voters disenchanted with gridlock and posturing.

“The Democratic Party as a whole is in a really bad spot,” Delaney said.

“We’ve basically become a regional party,” he added. “And that’s really the issue to focus on, and I think making sure people understand what our policies are and our values are consistent with what they care about is much more important.”

The three-term Maryland congressman believes that by getting a head start on the competition, he can raise his national profile and win over voters exhausted of the pitched partisan battles dominated by the political fringes.

“I think particularly after Trump, people are going to look at someone who has actually done things with their lives that people want out of their leadership,” he said. “I went into Congress, and I was one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, and I think I came up with lots of ideas. And I’m going to be in it. You can’t win the race unless you’re in it, and I’m going to be in it.”

Business Insider’s full interview with John Delaney:

Maxwell Tani: Why are you running, and why now, so early?

John Delaney: The reason I’m running is I think I have both a vision for how the country can govern itself better, because we’ve basically gotten to the point now as a federal government where we can’t do anything, and I think there is a very high cost associated with doing nothing, which is where we are.

And secondly, I think we’re having entirely the wrong conversation. The debate right now in politics is very backwards-looking, and I think the most important thing to do is focus on the future. If you go outside federal politics and outside the Beltway, if you will, and talk to people about what’s really going on in the world, about how technology, automation, and global connections are fundamentally changing work, jobs, risk, resources allocation, etc., there’s almost no conversation about that at the federal government.

We’re basically not preparing our country and its citizens for the future. So the reason I’m running is I want us to govern differently, and I want us to focus on issues that are important to the American people.

Tani: When did you decide you were going to run?

Delaney: We made the decision in the spring, and then we wanted to kind of live with it and think through some of the specifics, and then into the summer we started to then focus on “This is what we’re going to do” and try to figure out the right time to do it.

The timing question, which is your second question, is based on my view that this is the most important job in the country, and arguably in the world. And it just strikes me that the right answer is to spend more time working on it, spend more time listening to people, hearing what their concerns are, getting a sense of what they’re looking for in new leadership. And give them an opportunity to get to know me and understand my background and my experiences and my vision.

Delaney quotes

Time struck me as an asset, not a liability. I also have never liked the cat-and-mouse games that some politicians play about running — running, not running, running when everyone knows they’re running. So my view is I came to the decision to do it. I’d like to spend a lot of time working to achieve it, and I felt that was the right thing to do to achieve that.

Tani: You were rumoured as potentially a gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, and you could’ve climbed the House leadership ladder. And you thought those weren’t the avenues you wanted to pursue this time around — you wanted to pursue the presidency?

Delaney: That’s exactly right. We — when I say we, my wife and I — we talked about this extensively as a family. When I first ran in 2012, I’d been in business, I’d started two companies, taken them public, had a successful business career. And we really thought about this next step as about public service and trying to make, as we like to say, a disproportionate difference and less as a career, and more as that.

So when we really went down and said “Where do we have the most to add?” this came up as the work that we should be doing. And while I was deeply appreciative of the support we had in Maryland — we won the recent straw poll and stuff like that — it didn’t feel like the thing for us to do.

Tani: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’re running as a progressive. You’ve highlighted your positions on raising the minimum wage. But you’ve also said that one of the big problems is the partisanship that has calcified Congress. So I’m curious, though, how you square some of your more moderate positions in terms of tax repatriation and your support for TPP with this progressive left that thinks that Bernie Sanders would have had a better shot against Trump.

Delaney: What I’ve said is that my instincts are progressive, but I come about trying to achieve them in a different way. The only label that I fully embrace is that of a Democrat. I think my instincts are progressive — the way I try to get things done in a bipartisan way makes me moderate or centrist. I think these labels move around a little bit depending on the issues you’re working on.

So the only label I’m really comfortable with at the end of the way is a Democrat. But I definitely think I’m a different kind of Democrat. I work to achieve things that are consistent with the values of my party, but I have two pretty big distinctions.

The first is I really do try and work in a bipartisan basis, and I think if you spend any time studying the history of our country, you quickly realise it was designed so you kind of have to do that. And it seems somewhat pointless to me to try to do things on a partisan basis, because it’s very hard to do, and even if you get them done, they never live a healthy life.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing is I’m a big supporter of the private sector and the private economy. I’m, in a sense, pro-business, which doesn’t mean I don’t think business from time to time needs to be more just. And kind of trying to create a more just and inclusive form of capitalism is really important to this campaign, and I have some really specific ideas for how to do that.

But I’m pro-jobs, so I’ve got to be pro-business. But I think that market forces really work. So whenever I can find a solution that involves a market-oriented mechanism, I think that’s the right answer, because I think that market forces are the drivers of change and innovation. So if you want to deal with climate change, for example, do it with a private solution. So if you want to do more with communities, increase impact investing and pay for success.

So I definitely think of how to get things done very differently.

Tani: There are a lot of different types of progressivism. And one of the things that people are also very concerned about, particularly minority voters and people of colour, is progressiveness on civil rights and law-enforcement issues. You’ve got a 92% rating from the National Association of Police Organisations. You recently voted in favour of the Probation Officer Protection Act. I’m curious what you would say to people who think you’ve got tough-on-crime stances.

Delaney: Here again, I think it’s important to talk about the facts when I’m campaigning. And that’s going to be one of the themes of my campaign is to talk honestly and openly about what’s going on. So yes, I do support law enforcement. The American people want us to be safe, and I think law enforcement have a very tough job, and they need to be supported and have the resources to do it.

But I, like everyone else, think it’s an utter tragedy when someone is killed when they shouldn’t have been killed or when they were innocent. Or when law enforcement shoots some unarmed person. I mean, these are things we need to eliminate in society. And the way to do it is to go at that problem, and a lot of that problem is economic in some of these communities, and it is also making sure that we have the relationship between law enforcement and communities that allows both to be the most successful, if you will.

And obviously, there’s a criminal-justice-reform component here, and like so many of these issues, one of the things that’s important to how I think about the world. I’m an active Catholic, and the social-justice aspect of my church is really important to how I think about the world. And these issues — making sure people aren’t incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or overly harsh punishments, or individuals being killed who didn’t do anything and weren’t a risk — these are really important issues, but we need to solve them by working with law enforcement, not by attacking law enforcement.

Tani: One of the other things that people have been debating in the Democratic Party recently is the idea of having a litmus test for abortion for candidates. What’s your stance on that? Do you think there should be a litmus test for 2020 presidential candidates or congressional candidates?

Delaney: I think the voters decide at the end of the day. I think it’s very important for the Democratic Party to stand up for reproductive freedom, which I certainly support. But in my personal life, I would follow the teachings of my church. So I don’t think we should tell people how to live their personal lives. I think most Democrats — certainly those in elected office and Democratic voters — are supportive of reproductive freedom, supportive of organisations like Planned Parenthood.

And the other thing that is important here, and I say this to my Democratic colleagues, is that if we win, we’re not voting on any of these things. The only reason we vote on defunding Planned Parenthood is because Republicans control the Congress. If Democrats control Congress, the chances of voting on defunding Planned Parenthood are zero. So if people have different perspectives on this issue personally, it’s never going to be an issue that anyone ever votes on.

Tani: I guess what groups like NARAL or Emily’s List would say is that Trump has appointed judges who — Neil Gorsuch, for example, on Roe v. Wade is somewhat unclear.

Delaney: And if Democrats controlled the White House or Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch wouldn’t be on the Supreme Court and Merrick Garland would.

Tani: Right. I guess it’s a question of values.

Delaney: Successful Democratic candidates will support women’s reproductive freedom because that’s where the voters in the party are. I think in terms of, like, litmus tests, things like that, voters decide.

Tani: It’s an interesting question to me, whether or not the party should be more diverse, accepting candidates who have other views in conservative areas.

Delaney: There are some people who would probably say Joe Biden’s view on this issue makes him someone they couldn’t support, but I don’t look at it that way, for example.

It’s a relevant issue. The Democratic Party is wrestling with a lot of issues right now. I think that’s healthy. I think what’s most important for our party is to have a debate on all these issues, and I think what we are going to figure out when we’re done with it is we are more together than we think, but we disagree on how to achieve those goals.

Tani: Speaking of issues the Democratic Party is focused on, do you think that Democrats have been too focused on Russia? There are some people out there — Gavin Newsom, the front-runner for governor in California — thinks it’s a losing issue.


Delaney: I don’t think we’re too focused on it, because I think it’s an important thing to focus on. I just don’t think every Democrat needs to focus on it. In Congress, we have intelligence in the House and Senate which are very focused on this, as they should be, and I think those members should be enormously focused on it. Should Adam Schiff be really focused on this? Absolutely. Do I support him in every respect in doing that? Absolutely. Do I have opinions on it, and will I comment on it? Of course. But will I spend all my time commenting on Russia? Of course not.

It’s one of those things we should be focused on, but not everyone should be focused on it all the time.

Tani: It seems it would be kind of strange to me if the investigation was still going on fully into the next campaign cycle. Do you think that would be kind of distracting or strange for you?

Delaney: Assuming Robert Mueller isn’t fired.

Tani: Which is a big assumption.

Delaney: Which is a big assumption. Wouldn’t surprise me if he was, which would be terrible, obviously, because we have to get to the bottom of this. I think the American people want an answer to this question, and I think that guy is going to get an answer to this question, and I don’t think it will take by the next election.

That’s my point: I want to support him not getting fired, because he’s going to get to the bottom of the Russia investigation; I’m not. See what I mean? But I want to support him getting to the bottom of it.

Tani: I think it would be a weird, surreal thing to me if I was a candidate and I was up there at the Iowa steak fry or whatever — you’re campaigning in New Hampshire in 2019 and people are coming up to you and asking you about the things that happened in the 2016 election.

Delaney: Did you read my op-ed in The Washington Post?

Tani: Of course.

Delaney: A few people have pointed out to me, and this was not intentional. I wrote the op-ed I should write. I never mentioned Donald Trump’s name.

Tani: That’s interesting.

Delaney: The truth of the matter is I didn’t actually sit down and have that as a goal. I said: “You know, The Washington Post is giving me 800 words because that’s the way they work. But in 800 words, I have to say what I really want to say.” To me, that wasn’t something I wanted to say.

Tani: There have been some Democrats who say Nancy Pelosi has bogged down the electoral chances. Other people say that’s BS. Where do you come down on that? Would you support Nancy Pelosi staying on as Democratic leader, and do you think she has hurt Democratic chances in Congress or otherwise?

Delaney: Obviously, Nancy has been a terrific leader of our party in the House, and I think it’s ultimately up to the Democratic caucus to decide our next leadership. The bigger issue is the Democratic Party as a whole is in a really bad spot.

Tani: Why do you say that?

Delaney: Everyone is responsible for that, including people in leadership positions. We’ve basically become a regional party. And that’s really the issue to focus on, and I think making sure people understand what our policies are and our values are consistent with what they care about is much more important. The leadership stuff flows from that in some way.

And that’s part of the job I want to take on, because I look at what’s happened in my party. We’ve lost 1,000 state legislative seats in the last five to 10 years. We only have 16 governors today.

Tani: I think it’s 15 now, after West Virginia.

Delaney: We don’t have the House, the Senate, or the White House. It’s like Nolan Ryan at his best striking out at 20. And we’ve got to confront that. And my own personal view is I don’t believe it’s because of what we’re trying to achieve, because the party at its high-level core is trying to accomplish what’s in the best interest of the American people. But we are not coming up with ideas that excite people about our ability to get it done or being respectful of people about how they think about the world or just exciting them with how we’re planning on leading. You can’t conclude anything otherwise.

Tani: There are some pretty big heavy hitters that people are looking at that are going to join, and it’s going to be a pretty crowded field. How do you plan on standing out — how do you plan on navigating an environment where there are people further to the left of you and there are probably big-name candidates that are maybe going to run toward the center? How are you going to distinguish yourself in a field with your Bookers, you Harrises, people of that nature?

Delaney: I think the Democratic primary voter understands what I just said to you a few minutes ago, which is that we’re not doing a great job. I think by the time that the Democratic primary comes around in 2020, we’re going to have a Democratic primary voter in 2020 that is open-minded and wants to do what’s best for their party and, most importantly, their country. And as someone who is going to run a campaign that is optimistic about our future — and I wouldn’t say singularly focused on our future, because you have to be dealing with what’s going on in the world today — but has very strong views on what’s happening in the world, and I’ll have the most thought-out perspective on that. And as someone who is going to talk a lot about civility and bipartisanship in government, and how we need to bring ourselves together so we can actually get things done to help the American people, my view is that that’s going to be a conversation the American people and Democratic primary voter wants to have.

I know I’m going to be in this for the long run. I know I’m going to have the resources that are needed so I can endure the primary. And I think my message and my vision and my personal experiences — I think particularly after Trump, people are going to look at someone who has actually done things with their lives that people want out of their leadership. I’m self-made. I come from a blue-collar family. I started two businesses that were very admired in my community. I used my success to do good things, as opposed to what Trump has done. I went into Congress, and I was one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, and I think I came up with lots of ideas.

And I’m going to be in it. You can’t win the race unless you’re in it, and I’m going to be in it.

Tani: That’s true. And that’s why I guess it makes sense to come out first.

Delaney: And not just first, but a campaign that is going to be in it until the end.

Tani: Have you started thinking about political strategy at this point? What’s your political road map look like?

Delaney: We have. The road map clarifies as you get closer and you understand who is running, etc. What we do have is a strategy for getting through the key primary states and being well-resourced and running a competitive, on-the-ground social-media campaign. So we know what our message is.

Tani: How do you plan on outlasting? Martin O’Malley, your former governor, dropped out immediately after Iowa. You’d imagine a Democratic primary after Iowa — candidates are going to be dropping out if there are, like, 20 people running.

Delaney: If you do terribly in the early states, the chances of you being successful in the long run are low. So you have to have a plan to do well in some of the early states, which we believe we will. We’ll have a very different kind of campaign infrastructure and, I think, message that Gov. O’Malley did.

Tani: Where do you think that Hillary Clinton went wrong in 2016? Why do you think she lost?

Delaney: To be honest with you, there’s a lot of theories as to why she lost, and I haven’t found one I can put my finger on. What I’m focused on is my campaign and the future. And I think Secretary Clinton would have been a good president, which is why I supported her. You could point to 20 reasons why she lost, because if one thing would have gone differently in 20 scenarios, she would have won.

Tani: Are you preparing to run against Trump, or are you preparing to run against another potential Republican candidate?

Delaney: One of my favourite Abraham Lincoln expressions is you can only paddle to the next bend in the river, and the bend in the river I’m paddling hard towards is winning the Democratic nomination. When I do that, I’ll turn the corner and focus on that next bend.

Tani: Who is your political hero? Who do you admire politically and you’d want to model your presidency and campaign after?

Delaney: I’ll just give you characteristics: I admire people who put country ahead of party, who do the courageous things when it’s needed, and work to build bipartisan support for ideas, because those become enduring achievements, as opposed to things that remain subject to political fights.


Tani: What’s the response been like so far to your campaign from family members, from colleagues?

Delaney: From my colleagues, it’s been terrific.

Tani: Anything people have mentioned?

Delaney: I think people believe that what I want to talk about desperately, desperately, desperately need to be talked about in our political debate. I think people know me as a person of character and someone who has the resources — who can run a campaign and make sure that message gets out there.

Tani: Did you consult many other members of Congress before announcing a run?

Delaney: Yeah, a whole bunch.

Tani: Did they all say you should do it?

Delaney: They all said it was a great idea.

Tani: Really? Everybody thought you should?

Delaney: They really did. You have to realise if you’re a member of Congress right now what you really want, most of them, is a really good debate. Because we understand, particularly those of us who have run in competitive districts, we have to do a lot better as a party if we’re going to start winning. People look at me as someone who is not sticking their finger in the wind and figuring out which way it’s going and getting on board with that.

I learned this from business. What matters is that Gretzky saying: You don’t go to where the puck is — you go to where it’s going. And I think they view me as someone who is going where the puck is likely to go, which is a different conversation. If you listen to the stuff I’m talking about, as you rightly identified, that is not necessarily what people view as the conventional wisdom for a Democrat.

My view is everything changes, and you make your decisions and your bets based on where you think things are going to be, not where they are in the moment, because things change.

Tani: Have you heard other members of Congress in the House who are thinking about running? Because everyone is looking at the Senate, but there are a lot of pretty prominent people in the House.

Delaney: There are some good people in the House. I think the reason a lot of people in the House haven’t run is that they don’t want to give up their seat. Because, by definition, a House member has to give up their seat to run for president. And I think there’s a lot of terrific members in the House, and I don’t think there’s really any reason why a House member can’t run any more than a senator, because it’s the exact same job. Sure, if you’re a senator from a huge state, by definition, more people know you, because your state’s big. But a lot of people are from states that aren’t any bigger than congressional districts.

I’m fully supportive of House members running — that’s a little institutional pride coming through. But remember the reason they don’t do it is because they have to give up their seat. You can’t find a lot of evidence of senators or governors running when they’re up for election in their underlying seat. They all run in their off years. That’s the correlation that has to be made. People look at the correlation and say, “Oh, House members never run, so therefore you can’t run from the House,” but they’re missing the correlation. That’s not the correlation — the correlation is to run from the House, you have to say, “I’m putting my career on the line.”

Tani: Congressman, I really appreciate your time.