Problem Solver

An Interview with John Delaney

OR: What do you make of the resurgence of identity as a theme in American politics?

Delaney: Again, I think it's all part of the same larger picture: absent leadership and absent progress, people start focusing on approaches to how they think about politics that are really not about the common good, but about particular issues or particular orientations. I think there has been, among Democrats, an appropriate response to some of the racist comments that the President has made and some of the divisive rhetoric around people's race and sexual orientation and gender. The #MeToo movement, for example, has been really appropriate. Women have not been treated as equal members of our society, they’ve been subject to harassment and abuse, and having a movement that finally recognizes that and stands up against it is incredibly positive.

But thinking exclusively about making decisions on who you vote for based on, first and foremost, a narrow political identity — are you a progressive, are you a centrist — and then going even further and thinking about what gender you are, what ethnicity you are all exists when there's a lack of real leadership. It's the same reason why things like gun rights have become such a big issue for so many people in this country. They feel like nothing's getting done, and this is a really simple issue to vote on. So a lot of people basically vote against Democrats because they think we want to take away their guns. We really don't. But in a world where nothing else is getting done, this seems like a really simple issue.

OR: How do you assess Trump as his first term moves towards its end?

Delaney: I think he's unfit to be the President. I think he lacks the moral compass we deserve from our President, and I think he doesn't have the temperament we deserve. In many ways, even though I disagree with his policy agenda, I view it as more consistent with what pretty much any Republican administration would have done. His biggest failings are his character, his integrity, his decency. The 2020 election is, I think, going to be a little bit more about morality and civility and decency and a little bit less about economic policy.

Having said that, I also disagree with his policies. I think his signature issue, which was the tax cut, was a bad plan. Not the tax reform we needed in this country. I think a lot of his policies are terrible and designed to be divisive, like what he's doing with the national emergency at the border, with the Muslim travel ban. You can go down the list.

But his greatest failing as a leader is in his character and his lack of a moral compass. That's where he is taking the country down a very, very dangerous road. He's a highly divisive president. He gets his power by pitting American against American.

OR: How do you assess the general health of the nation?

Delaney: What has been the beating heart of this nation — this notion of common purpose, that we're all in this together, and that we may not always agree with each other but we as Americans work together to build a better future — is failing massively right now. That's the biggest failing in the Trump presidency and I think it'll have enduring and lasting damage.

The current state of the economy is actually good, if you measure it by unemployment. I'm happy about that. But I think the long-term trends are actually quite negative. The fiscal trajectory is really bad; the climate trajectory, effectively a debt, is really bad. The amount of economic concentration in this country around opportunity — you've got to be born in the right part of the country these days to have a shot — is very concerning.

From a foreign policy perspective, there are things Trump's done that I agree with. His approach to North Korea hasn't been terrible, and I think it'll actually in many ways help the next President. I don't think Trump will get a major deal there, but I think the next President might be able to, because we now have dialogue.

All the same, he's taken the greatest foreign policy asset the United States of America has, our portfolio of allies, and he's sent a message to them that they don't matter anymore. That portfolio is something that we've worked hard since World War II to build. It's a singular asset that we have, and I think he's putting the United States in a position where we will be less relevant in the world going forward. We used to be, by far, the largest economy in the world, and we had a diplomatic footprint commensurate with our economy. As we became a relatively smaller economy (not because we've done badly, because a lot of the world has done well) we still maintained our previous diplomatic footprint because we were so engaged. Trump's withdrawal, I think, will lead potentially to our diplomatic footprint reducing over time to match our economic footprint.

OR: What is your take on the narrative about the white working class and its political future in America?

Delaney: I tend not to break people down to those kind of subgroups. But I do think a lot of people left the Democratic Party because we weren't focused on their issues. The issues most Americans care about are their job, their pay, the education of their kids, health care for their family, and what kind of opportunities there are for their kids in their communities. If you're focused on the kitchen-table issues, you do well with workers everywhere, whether they're white or people of color. I think we lost our way as a party, and we started focusing on issues where we were right as a matter of policy but that didn't really affect people on a day-to-day basis. In a world where a lot of people are struggling — in 2018 the Federal Reserve said the half the country can't afford a $500 expense — if you're not talking to people about issues they care about, they're going to lose faith in you. And I think that's what happened to the Democratic party. We stopped talking to people about the issues that they cared about. If we get back to that kind of agenda, all these voters will be available once again.