Octavian Report: Why are you running for President, and what do you bring to the table?
John Delaney: I’ve always thought of my life as one-third learning, one-third earning, and one-third serving. But I think what really made me focus on running for office was running my business — a good-sized business that focused on lending money to small- to mid-sized companies. We financed 5,000 small to mid-sized businesses all over the country. We had a really good perspective on what was going on with lots of small and mid-sized businesses, in addition to having a couple thousand employees of our own. And I became incredibly frustrated with the debate going on in politics about what is needed to create jobs and make sure the country’s competitive and make sure workers have good opportunities. It struck me as so misguided on both sides of the aisle. That’s really what pushed me to say my voice is a voice that we should have in politics.
There’s really three things that I’ve been focused on politically. I want to solve problems. We’ve got a lot of issues in this country that need to be dealt with, and there’s a path forward on all of them. We just need someone who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and find common ground to get it done. That’s the first reason. The second reason is that as a former entrepreneur I’ve always been focused on the future. The future we’re headed for right now is not the one we want, and we need to rethink a bunch of things about the kind of future we’re building for my kids and everyone else’s kids. The third reason is to bring the country together and restore a sense of common purpose. I think that the central issue facing this country right now is how divided we are. On all three of those issues, what I bring to the table is a track record of success. I’ve been someone who’s brought people together and I’ve always been forward-thinking and forward-leaning about where the world is going.
Something that I think the private sector does well, and the public sector does a terrible job at, is finding the best ideas no matter the source. I think that’s one of the problems with the public sector right now: people are so darn ideological they think whatever kind of ideology they come from has all the answers to the point where they don’t even listen to the question. I, however, have been a problem-solver my whole life.
OR: What are the major policy challenges the country faces, as you see them?
Delaney: There’s a lot of economic dislocation and concentration here right now. That’s been brought on by technology and globalization, which although it’s been positive, has left a lot of Americans behind, and we haven’t updated the social compact to prepare our citizens for it. So to address that, we need to do things like double the Earned Income Tax Credit as well as create an incentive for investors to invest in communities that are left behind. Last year, 80 percent of U.S. venture capital went to just 50 counties. It’s a tremendous concentration of opportunity. We also need to create a form of universal health care: workers are going to be more mobile in the future and shouldn’t have their health care tied to their jobs. We need to fundamentally improve public education, because kids aren’t graduating with the education they need.
The second big issue is climate. We should have been addressing it 10 years ago. On that, what I favor is a carbon tax. I introduced the only bipartisan carbon tax in Congress in 2018. I also favor efforts to invest in innovation — ultimately we have to innovate our way out of this problem. I think we can do it, but we need a transformative increase in research and we need to create a market for things like negative emission technologies, which can pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
The third policy issue we’ve got to deal with is our fiscal trajectory. Our deficits are at record levels despite a pretty strong economy. And that’s going to end very badly for the next generation.
OR: Why has fiscal health become such an afterthought for our political class, and how do we address that problem?
Delaney: I think at the end of the day we have to get young people focused on it, because the generation it’s largely controlled by right now has shown a complete indifference to it. In some ways, what our government has never been well-suited for is dealing with slow-moving, big problems. It’s generally good at reacting to an emergency, but it’s very bad at dealing with slow-moving, big problems like climate and the fiscal trajectory. The more polarized the government is, the less capable it is of dealing with those issues. And that’s I think what’s happened: the last several decades have been characterized by intense partisanship. As a result, issues (like the fiscal trajectory) that involve shared sacrifice to get back on track have lost any kind of footing to get dealt with. It’s like climate. We need to be talking to the next generation about the world they’re getting left, and make them very energized around it.
OR: What do you make of the ideological and policy shifts ongoing within your party?
Delaney: I think if we’d made some progress on some important issues that it would have created less oxygen for people on the extremes in both the Republican Party or the Democratic Party to get traction. In other words, because the center didn’t hold, it’s given the extremes more ammunition to argue for complete structural changes. I admire a lot of the goals. But I also, I believe, have a better understanding how our country really works and how we make progress historically.
Some of these approaches are not really the way we make the progress we want to make. Look at climate change, for example. We either think climate change is a really big problem, or we don’t. If we think it’s a really big problem, then we set a singular focus on doing whatever we can as soon as possible to start slowing the damage. But if we think it’s not a problem but rather a good political issue, then we surround it with other issues like universal health care and universal basic income and effectively make it harder to get something done. It may make it a more interesting discussion, but it’s harder to get it done.
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.
OR: What is your take on the current debate over immigration?
Delaney: I think the biggest missed opportunity when I was in Congress was not to pass bipartisan immigration reform. There was a bill in the Senate that passed with bipartisan support. It should have gotten a vote in the House; if it did it would have passed. It was a huge missed opportunity. That’s what I want to do. There’s a broad, bipartisan consensus. It deals with border security, with citizenship, with our visa programs. I’ve spent time at the border. And I think what we should be doing there is pretty obvious: securing it with a combination of technology or personnel — and in certain places, more barriers. That kind of portfolio approach is what we need, and frustratingly, we can’t have that conversation.
OR: What do you want to tell the next generation, whose political responsibilities you have mentioned?
Delaney: I want to tell them I appreciate the anxiety they have about the future. I think they’re worried about whether there’s going to be good jobs for them, I think they’re worried about whether the air they breathe is going to be clean, and whether the environment that we’re leaving them is going to be sustainable. I think they want to be safe, but they don’t want us engaged in wars all over the globe. I want to tell them that there are real things we can do to make sure that they have a better future. We’ve got to get back to what we used to do in this country, which will soon be their country: solving these problems together. That’s what I’m committed to do as President.