Delaney, a 'Different Kind of Democrat,' Sets Sights on WH
It might sound counterintuitive that Democrats, looking to defeat President Trump in 2020, would turn to an ultra-wealthy former businessman who supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, warns against vilifying banks, and believes partisanship is a four-letter word.
But Rep. John Delaney is betting on it.
That was the one-word reaction from America Rising, a Republican opposition research outfit, when the Maryland Democrat announced late last month in a Washington Post op-ed that he will run for president, making him the first entrant into what promises to be a crowded field.
And it wasn’t just Republicans cracking jokes. A couple of weeks after Delaney’s announcement, one Democratic strategist needed prodding to recall his campaign launch. “It was such a big moment that I totally forgot about it already,” the strategist deadpanned.
Delaney is in on the joke, however — which is why he is launching a campaign for president more than three years before Election Day.
“If someone who’s very famous like Joe Biden is going to run for president, he doesn’t have to do anything prior to his formal launch, because everyone knows who Joe Biden is,” Delaney (on right in photo) told RealClearPolitics. “But not everyone knows who John Delaney is, so my job ... is to solve for that problem.”
Delaney describes himself as “a different kind of Democrat,” and he might be understating it. In a video to launch his presidential campaign, Delaney suggests “attacking banks won’t win the day” — at a time when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have won support for doing just that.
And, amid the Democratic “resistance” to Trump’s administration, Delaney offers: “Democrats can’t win by just attacking Trump. We really have to show the American people there’s a better way.”
But if Delaney is taking a different stylistic approach to running for president as a Democrat in this charged political moment, he is also reviving old notions about how to win the presidency: with an organized, deliberate campaign and the years of thankless work that involves.
Meeting with Delaney last week in his stylish Capitol Hill row house, one of a few homes he owns, he was preparing for a traditional first step: a trip to Iowa, where he would grip-and-grin his way through the state fair this week.
“I think we’re seeing the butter cow, aren’t we, Will?” Delaney questioned his aide across the dining room table, invoking that famed dairy sculpture that has drawn past presidential candidates like pilgrims to a sacred idol.
One person who never paid respects to the butter cow, as it happens, is the man currently inhabiting the White House: Trump, as a celebrity and cable news magnet, was able to bypass many rites of a presidential primary. But, if there’s still a playbook for non-reality-television-stars to one day hold the highest office in the land, Delaney is following it.
New Campaign Playbook in Post-Trump Era
What’s less clear is whether that trusty playbook can apply in a post-Trump political era. In 2016, political professionals understandably doubted that a bombastic reality TV star could win the presidency; now, we wonder whether a well-qualified but relatively obscure lawmaker could have a shot. Can the proverbial toothpaste be put back in the tube?
“You know, I just think that toothpaste is going to get all used and we’re going to open a new one,” Delaney said. “It’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube, as you know. But I think American politics is always a new tube that people want to open.”
At the root of Delaney’s predictions of a Democratic shift is his view that the current course of politics is unsustainable: “If you believe what we have in politics continues and worsens, it basically takes you to the end of the country. ... So, then, it has to change.”
The idea that Delaney’s brand of politics could be what voters crave next might be less implausible than his low name recognition suggests.
The son of an electrician, Delaney’s net worth exceeds $200 million after starting two successful businesses — making him one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and positioning him to partially self-fund a presidential campaign should he need to. Meanwhile, he is well connected among top Democrats: Delaney bundled for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign before running for Congress in 2012, when former President Bill Clinton endorsed his candidacy over a party favorite. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers cut an ad for Delaney in the race, praising him as “a reformer who doesn’t owe the system or special interests anything.”
His social circle also includes David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media Company, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Jeffrey Zients, a director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, was an owner with Delaney of Timbuk2, a brand selling backpacks, messenger bags and other carryalls. The influential Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer was an investor in Delaney’s second company, CapitalSource, a lender targeting mid-size businesses. "He seems to me to be an extremely ethical and very sensible guy. That's a rare combination," Steyer said of Delaney in a 2007 Washington Post profile.
For all of his connections, however, Delaney’s most recent day job as a rank-and-file member in the House minority has not exactly launched him to political stardom. In its 2017 list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” Fortune included Delaney alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Pope Francis — even as the publication acknowledged that “being a House Democrat in a government Republicans dominate entirely sounds like a recipe for irrelevance.”
Delaney’s House colleagues, even as they vouched support for his effort, have also “highlighted the enormity of the task and the challenge” ahead, he said.
“There’s a little bit of David and Goliath with this, with Goliath being partisan politics and David being me, I suppose,” Delaney said. “But if you actually read the story of David and Goliath, David leaned into it, he didn’t step away. And I think that’s how you’ve got to deal with this thing.”
So, why not run for governor or the Senate, rather than president?
“Many of us, including myself, have asked him that same question,” said Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, who remains deeply involved in Democratic politics. But Delaney, Nides added, is focused on macro issues, like artificial intelligence and the evolution of the American workforce, which can only be addressed on a national scale. “And I think John’s a risk-taker, basically,” Nides added.
The "Striving Gene"
It’s a familiar theme in Delaney’s career. He has “the striving gene,” Bradley told Washingtonian magazine ahead of Delaney’s surprise 2012 victory, when he would ultimately unseat 10-term Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. “He’s been on a vertical run through life.”
As Delaney outlines his launch blueprint in his dining room, it comes off less like a normal campaign spiel than the pitch a candidate would make to prospective donors, as Delaney himself will do many times over the coming months. He plans to grow his Facebook following from nearly 300,000 users today to around 2 million by early 2019, tapping four full-time social media staff whom he has hired thus far. He’ll open offices in Iowa and New Hampshire, hire staff there, and travel frequently to those key states for appearances. Delaney will write a book and tour to promote it, he says, and grant interviews to national media.
“We’re going to do all the things you need to do to gain national prominence,” Delaney said, an effort he hopes will culminate in an official campaign launch — with a crowd waving signs, a stage back-dropped by American flags — in 2019. “If we do the launch successfully, we’re recognized as a legitimate candidate with a good operation and a different, distinct message. Then I think we’re in the game, and then it’s up to the voters.”
No one is quite ready to predict what Democrats will want of their presidential candidates in three years, including Delaney. But he is betting that, by then, voters will be fatigued by gridlock and bluster and ready for a solutions-oriented moderate.
“I don’t know when the American people are going to change, but they’re just not going to let their government continue to do nothing,” Delaney said. “They’re just not going to let that happen. And I think to some extent Donald Trump was the punctuation on the end of that era.”
The bipartisan space is a familiar one for Delaney, whom some Democrats accused of being an incognito Republican during his 2012 primary. Delaney told Washingtonian at the time, “I was a Democratic candidate speaking to voters in language that they had forgotten about.”
Today, Delaney believes Democrats need to have “a more honest conversation” about issues like trade, which Trump seized upon during the campaign by rallying his supporters against TPP. Sanders, too, took up that mantle — creating an uncomfortable situation for Clinton, who at one point had called the trade deal the “gold standard,” but ultimately backed away from it under pressure.
“Do I think the party would be better served if it recognized that President Obama wasn’t trying to hurt average Americans when he tried to do the TPP, but he was actually trying to help them? ... More [Democrats] believe that than are willing to admit it.
“I have a feeling that across the next several years, the fact that I was a supporter of the TPP will not only have proven to be the correct policy decision ... but I think it will be actually a very big asset in a Democratic primary,” Delaney added. “Because we have a president who’s basically withdrawing us from the world, and that’s very much against the values of Democrats.”
On this issue, Delaney is essentially an island among Democrats who could run for president — and there will be many of them, making his campaign an even lower-probability gambit than it would otherwise be.
Nides only half-jokingly predicts the next presidential election will be a “full Democratic employment act,” with “at least 30 people who seriously consider running for president, and there will be double digits that ultimately will be in Iowa.”
“Now, everyone believes that they can be president. How cool is that?” Nides laughed. “This is what Donald Trump has created.”
Still, Delaney believes there is “a zero probability” that he becomes a footnote in the upcoming presidential election cycle — a Jim Webb or Lincoln Chafee, doomed to inhabit extreme ends of the debate stage.
“Those two gentlemen, who I have respect for, did not run serious campaigns, and they really didn’t have anything unique to say,” Delaney said.
“There’s other examples you could put up that are more relevant,” Delaney added. “Like, do we end up where John Kasich was? That’s what I think you have to get your head around, and I think we’re comfortable with that. But I think we actually see a pretty good path to winning.”