Since last fall’s midterm elections, over a dozen Democrats have announced their intention to run for president in 2020. And then there’s John Delaney, who had already been campaigning for well over a year by the time his party regained control of the House. “I tend to be pretty objective about things,” Delaney tells Rolling Stone. “The reason I got in so early was because I wasn’t that well known. I think I am the right person for the job and I have the right vision for the country, but I concluded that I basically had to run a pre-race to be in the real race, and that’s effectively what I’ve done.”
The “real race” hasn’t been kind to the 55-year-old entrepreneur-turned-politician who left Congress to take on Trump — at least not in the early going. Polls show Delaney buried beneath a growing pack of big-name Democrats. He hasn’t been dissuaded. A self-described “blue-collar kid” who earned a fortune in the private sector before representing Maryland’s 6th District for three terms, Delaney is a relentless optimist who feels a strong message of unity and a platform of outside-the-box policy initiatives can win over Democrats frustrated by partisan politics. He has vowed to endorse exclusively bipartisan legislation in his first 100 days in office. He wants to offer incentives to high school graduates who volunteer to enter a national service program. He has even proposed that the president debate Congress live on national television four times per year. “I just think it would be amazing for the American people,” he says.
More important than his unorthodox proposals is his belief that the core of the Democratic voter base still lies near the center. He supports a universal health care system, but not Medicare-for-all. He wants to bring back the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been derided by progressives. He’s cited eliminating the national debt as a priority. He’s also an avowed capitalist. “This primary is going to be a choice between socialism and a more just form of capitalism,” he said in a statement after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy late last month. “I believe in capitalism, the free markets, and the private economy. I don’t believe socialism is the answer and I don’t believe it’s what the American people want.”
Rolling Stone recently spoke with Delaney about his vision for America, which he’s been honing on the campaign trail for nearly two years. His early entry has given him plenty of time to build resolve that he is “skating to where the puck is going,” as he puts it, which he believes is to a unified, bipartisan nation that accounts for everyone. “The reason I’m enjoying my campaign is that I know exactly why I’m running,” he says. “If the American people aren’t looking for what I’m offering, if they’re looking to be more divided, they’re absolutely not gonna vote for me. I get that and I understand that. I’m not changing.”
Rolling Stone: You recently spoke out against socialism, although you do support a number of welfare-based programs like universal pre-K, free community college and expanding tax credits for the lower class. How do you define socialism? Where do you draw the line and why do think it’s not the answer for America?
John Delaney: I define socialism as the government controlling the means of production. I don’t think the answer to some of the big vesting problems we have in this country are to solve them entirely with a government-only solution. Think about health care. I think everyone should have health care in this country as a right, but that we shouldn’t make privatized care illegal. My general view is that capitalism is an amazing innovation and job-creation machine. But what we’ve done historically that has been so brilliant is that we’ve moderated it with appropriate tax policy, with regulation, with workers’ rights and infrastructure in our society that make sure that everyone has an opportunity. What I think has happened in the last couple decades is that we stopped doing that. We stopped doing the kinds of things you need to do to make sure capitalism benefits as many people as possible. We haven’t improved our public schools like we should have and we haven’t improved our health care system like we should have. The answer is not to throw out the whole model of the country; it’s improving these societal programs.
You say that the American people don’t want socialism, but there’s a lot of polling that shows Democrats do support many progressive policy initiatives that fall toward the socialist end of the spectrum. Does this concern you, or do you think the polling could be misleading?
I think the American people know better than to get caught up in these labels. If you say, “Do you favor a universal health care system like Medicare-for-all?” Most of them are going to say, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” But what I think would happen if a Medicare-for-all bill passed is that, over time, we would have reduction in quality and access in our health care system. If you explain that to the American people, I think they are going to say, “Well, I don’t want that.” I still believe that socialism in its pure form is something that the American people absolutely do not want. They want strong societal infrastructure, decent health-care as a right, improvements to their public schools — absolutely they want that stuff. Those are social programs, but just because we pay for Medicare and Social Security doesn’t mean we’ve adopted socialism.
In order to "beat Trump," 2020 Democratic candidate @JohnDelaney says "we should not put up a candidate who embraces socialism."
— New Day (@NewDay) February 20, 2019
What’s changed for you now that the field has expanded? A lot of the national coverage you’ve gotten in the past has centered around the novelty of you having declared so early. How do you stay relevant now that there are so many big-name candidates sucking up the media’s attention?
I have to beat them the old-fashioned way, which is by working harder on the ground and meeting with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is something that those states really expect from candidates. I think the story that will continue to get told this year is that Delaney is showing up everywhere and working harder than everyone else, because that’s what we’re committed to do. I think another part of the story will be that I’m talking about different things. I am running on this notion that we should be unifying the country, not dividing it, and that we should be getting things done and solving problems, which does involve more moderation than I think my competitors will be talking about. My message is more about unity, solving problems and trying to bring the American people together around a notion of common purpose in terms of what we’ve got to do to build a better future. I also spend a lot of time talking about the future because, as a former entrepreneur, I’m a big believer in how large forces like technological innovation and globalization are changing everything, and I don’t think we spend nearly enough time talking about it.
You’ve been touring through Iowa since the middle of 2017. What’s one of the biggest issues you’ve seen voters raise?
One thing that’s happened, particularly in Iowa, is that there’s been a lot of concentration of opportunity in this country, in general. I talk a lot about how last year 80 percent of the venture capital went to 50 out of 3,100 counties. Yet, 75 or 80 percent of our kids live in counties where the jobs that are getting created are worse than the jobs that used to exist. They see that in Iowa. I go to all these small towns and they all have a town square and there’s generally a municipal building in the middle of town. You can look around and you can see the etchings of the stores that used to be there. A lot of people who come to events say, “Listen, are my kids gonna be able to stay in this town?” They have tremendous anxiety about that and how there’s such a concentration of jobs in this country and how people have to move elsewhere to get jobs. That becomes a big part of the conversation. How did we let this happen, this kind of structural unfairness in our country that favors a handful of regions? You know, New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Austin, Dallas and a couple of other places — they’re getting all the jobs. What do we have to do to change that?
You’ve talked a lot about innovation and looking to the future, and one of the things you’ve focused on is addressing AI and automation, which stands to take away even more jobs from some of these vulnerable areas. We recently spoke with Andrew Yang, who has proposed a universal basic income. What’s your take on how to handle what may be some adverse effects of technological innovation?
First of all, you need a strategy. You have to acknowledge that it’s an issue and really develop a coherent strategy around it. This is one of the reasons I’ve called for a national AI strategy, which would address not only the technological issues around AI, but national security and privacy and these other things. There’s a couple different issues here. One is how do you deal with the fact that a lot of communities [in middle America] are getting hollowed out and a lot of jobs are going to big cities. The way you deal with that is to create incentives for people to invest in other places.
I was a big proponent of opportunity zone legislation in the House. Let’s say you invest in Amazon stock and you made a bunch of money. If you sell that stock, you normally have to pay a capital gains tax. What the opportunity zone legislation says is that if you take the proceeds from the sale of that stock and you invest it in an opportunity zone, then you can defer your capital gains tax for 10 years. So it creates a real federal tax incentive for people to invest. That’s the first thing I would do. The second thing I would do is take these opportunity zones and create a preference for government contractors. So if a government contractor has half their employees in one big opportunity zone, they’d get preference. The third thing I would do as part of an infrastructure plan is that I would make a disproportionate allocation to opportunity zones. And then what I really want to do is double the earned income tax credit across the country, but at a minimum to these opportunity zones. Those four things would create a lot of motivation and incentive for people to start investing in these communities that are left behind. It would become a lot more competitive to attract capital.
Aren’t the potential ramifications of automation, which could wipe entire workforces, a problem that transcends a lot of these types of fixes?
I don’t actually view it as problem. It’s a problem if you don’t address it. If you look back across time, innovation has always created more jobs. Now, this time may be fundamentally different. But, in general, you have always seen more jobs come out of intense innovation than the jobs that were lost. The problem is that the jobs that get created don’t go to the people who lost them, and they often don’t go to the places that lost the jobs. So the first issue you have to deal with is the unevenness of what I call creation and displacement. If Newton, Iowa, loses the Maytag plant, you want to make sure there is the incentive for someone to create more jobs in Newton, Iowa. New jobs are getting created in downtown Manhattan aren’t really going to help the folks in Newton, Iowa.
But let’s assume that this time it’s different, and that all this automation and innovation takes away jobs but doesn’t create new ones. Well, I don’t actually [think that has to be the case] if we get our public policy right. There are a lot of jobs in our society right now and a lot of value-added things that are going on in the world right now that people do and don’t get paid for. I always talk about caregivers. They estimate about 30 percent of the country right now is a caregiver in some form or fashion. They think that number is going to go to 50 percent by 2040. If you were to care for your mom and I was to care for my mom, and then we decided to switch jobs, you’d have to pay me and I’d have to pay your to care for our respective mothers. We have all these uncompensated caregivers in society, adding value to society and not getting paid for it. We need more mentors, we need more teachers, we need more health care professionals. When you change tax policy and raise the capital gains tax like I’m proposing, it actually generates a lot more tax revenue from the wealthy people that we invest can in programs that allow caregivers to get paid, expand the number of teachers, et cetera. So I actually think that are always plenty of jobs to do. It’s just a question of can we figure out ways to get paid for them.
The language you’ve based your campaign around — fostering unity, bringing people together, playing to the center — is similar to what we’ve heard from Howard Schultz. Has it been frustrating for you to see him kind of parachute in and get a ton of press when he doesn’t even really have much of a platform?
I know a moderate, more centered candidate like myself doesn’t get as much attention as people who tend to say more extreme things. So I’ve expected that. We’re playing a bit of a long game here. We clearly have an early state strategy because we think my kind of approach plays well in early states, and that’s what will get me attention. I think the Schultz thing got a lot of attention because he said he was going to run as in independent. I thought it was actually really interesting how it unfolded. I had a lot of conversations with Democrats about it and they were all very upset that he was going to run as independent. They were upset because they’re worried about losing. What I would say to them all at the time is, “Well, why do you think he’s doing this?” They would all ultimately say, “Well, he thinks there’s a lot of people in the middle.” And I always say, “Well, yeah, so why are we giving up on these people? Why has the Democratic party decided that these people are not our target voters? Why are we not trying to build a big-tent party of moderates, progressives, independents and even some Republicans?”
I actually think the whole thing has been a positive for what I’m doing. It’s been a wake-up call for Democrats. You ignore the center at your own peril. The grand center in this country, if you will, the center-left and center-right, is still the largest block of voters in the country. I think that United States of America is basically a purple country. We talk about the congressional districts, the red districts and blue districts and purple districts. The U.S. is just one giant purple district. If you want to win that purple district, you’ve got to capture the center. I think that is gong to be the 2020 election. People are going to turn out in 2020. Democrats who were rightfully really upset about Trump are going to turn out, and Trump’s very loyal supporters are going to turn out. This isn’t going to be a turn-out election; it’s going to be an old-fashioned persuasion election. You’re actually going to have to sit across the table from people in the middle and convince them that you’re the kind of leader that will represent them and actually do what they want to get done, which is to solve problems and make progress. I think that Schultz has helped focus that conversation.
I think a lot of people look at the type of unity and bipartisanship you’ve been talking about as a pipe dream. What makes you think this is actually possible in a real way, outside of with a handful of issues you may try to get through Congress during your first 100 days in office?
Aside from being an optimist by nature, which I am in part because I believe in the life that I’ve lived, which is that I was a blue-collar kid who has had a lot of successes and had the privilege of running for Congress. I fundamentally believe in the American system and I believe in the American people, so I would never bet against them. To use the Churchill line: that doesn’t mean we always don’t do the right thing anyway. I think Trump is a punctuation of decades of terrible politics in our country where the parties have been messaging to the country that everyone in government is an idiot and everyone in business is corrupt. These kind of terrible, insidious messages have caused the American people to lose faith in their government, in their leaders and, to some extent, in themselves. That’s why they elected Trump, in my opinion.
But new leadership, I think, can turn it around. Someone who is willing to tell a better story and truly appeal to our better angels. It’s part your style, but I think a president should actually effectively swear never to divide the country. Whether it be political divisions or racial divisions, the president should be asking what they can do as president to heal that and how they can call on the American people to have a role in it. As someone, again, who is an entrepreneur by nature and has started things from scratch, I just think things can change fast if you just get it moving in the right direction. At the end of the day, that’s a leadership question. That’s the tone at the top. That’s the way a president conducts themselves, the messages they send and the intentional things they do to walk the walk.
I guess it’s impossible to predict how the system is going to react once Trump is out of office. You might as well be optimistic about it.
There’s almost no other option. You cannot sit here and say, “OK, we’re gonna double down on all the nonsense we’ve done the last several decades. We’re gonna retreat to our camps further.” One of the problems is that if you listen to the parties, they will literally tell you the other side is entirely wrong about every single thing they believe. Listen, I think Democrats are more right about policy than Republicans are, which is why I’m a strong Democrat. But I’m not walking around saying every Republican I know is a horrible human being who doesn’t have any good ideas or have anything to contribute to our country. It’s ridiculous. But if you listen to the parties, that’s what they’re basically telling us and there’s really been a vacuum of principled leadership.
At John McCain’s funeral, in particular, I thought it was interesting. He was obviously such an extraordinary hero in the classic sense of someone who served their country and sacrificed. But what they talked about was how across his career he always put country ahead of party and worked for the common good in the Senate. That’s actually what they talked about more than even his extraordinary military career, which I found to be amazing. I just walked away saying, I refuse to believe he’s the last one.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.