Amid the crowded Democratic presidential primary field, John Delaney is a long shot. But the former three-term member of Congress believes he can make up for that with hard work and unconventional but moderate ideas.
Like other candidates, Delaney is focused on issues like climate change, the cost of education and affordable healthcare. But rather than bold progressive ideas like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, he favors more centrist approaches.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he proposes a federal carbon tax. He’d fund free pre-K with a 1.5% surtax on wealthy Americans’ incomes over $500,000. And he’d create an opt-out public health care system with tax credits for those who choose private insurance instead.
His more out-of-the-box ideas revolve around finding new ways to break through the partisan stalemate in Congress. If elected, he pledges to debate Congress four times per year and focus on only advancing bipartisan legislation in the first 100 days of his presidency.
“I’m running on intentionally doing things to try to end the divisiveness,” he said. “I think many other people are running on a more divisive approach and a more divisive agenda. The problem with that is it will leave us more divided and less prosperous because we won’t do the things we need to do because we’ll spend all our time fighting.”
Since launching his campaign in 2017, Delaney has spent $5.9 million and a considerable amount of time on the hustings in early voting states, hoping that an early win can propel his candidacy.
The 55-year-old faces tough odds. According to recent surveys from sources including Quinnipiac University, Monmouth University, CNN and Fox News, Delaney is polling at less than 1% support among Democratic voters.
“The reason I got in so early was because even though I think I’m the right person for the job and have the right vision, not enough people know who I am,” he recently told TIME in an interview. “The way I solve that problem is by getting in early and working harder than everyone else.”
It’s an approach he says he would take to the White House.
Regarding his plans to debate Congress regularly, Delaney says it is time to get back to “town-square type debates, where elected officials are out in the open debating the big issues and ideas of the day.”
“I think the president should set the tone at the top and be prepared to do it themselves,” he said. “And I think the American people would learn an enormous amount if they tuned in every three months for three hours and watched the president debate the Congress so they could actually start figuring out who is telling the truth.”
Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse, has doubts about whether the idea would yield anything useful.
“Without a more general change in our political culture, it might make things worse,” he said. “I can see that this is an effort to change the political culture by requiring direct engagement, but the participants have to agree to take the exercise at face value, in front of TV cameras, and the political disincentives against doing that right now are strong. Each of them would end up playing to their bases, I would fear.”
Reeher also questions the efficiency and efficacy of a new president sticking to bipartisan legislation in the first three months of their presidency.
Delaney says he “wants to lead this country in a conversation about some of the things we agree with each other on” and that the best way to do that is to “take bills that currently exist in Congress and have bipartisan support and make that the focus.”
But Reeher says that strategy goes against the grain of what presidential candidates are usually fighting for: the ability to advance the ideas that the people who voted for them want.
“If the process works as it’s supposed to, presidents win elections by running on articulated plans to do certain things, and those plans are put forward and defended in opposition to or contrast with the plans of the other candidate. So then reversing all that and limiting yourself in the first 100 days — when a president has the most political capital to spend — to bipartisan initiatives could actually undercut the very point of having the election, and why your supporters backed you.”
In many ways, Delaney fits the characteristics of a traditional candidate. Since 1789, 18 former members of the U.S. House have gone on to become president. And like former Presidents Donald Trump, George H.W. Bush and Herbert Hoover, Delaney was a businessman before dipping his toes into politics. In fact, Delaney was the youngest CEO of a New York Stock Exchange-traded company around 1995, according to CNBC.
One of the former Maryland congressman’s ideas also mirrors one John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign ideas. Just like Kennedy prompted the creation of the Peace Corps, which generally allows recent college graduate volunteers to help improve systems like education and infrastructure in international spaces, Delaney’s proposed National Service would allow high school graduate volunteers to help improve things like computer literacy and conservation efforts in domestic ones.
He hopes the program prepares young Americans for the realities they will face as technological advancements change the job market.
“The way you deal with automation is by upgrading people’s skills so they can get the jobs of the future,” he said. “National Service helps in that regard because it kind of gives kids a gap year where they have an opportunity get some skills and better position themselves to get some additional education and training.”
Mark Graber, a constitutional law professor at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, tells TIME there is nothing unconstitutional about Delaney’s ideas, but that there is something worrying about the person proposing them.
“My sense is that if Delaney is running, I sort of wonder if I should be running too,” Graber joked. “My real reaction to some of the Democrats running is that I wind up thinking my colleagues, the people I run into on a regular basis, are about as qualified.”
According to financial disclosure forms from 2016, Delaney was the six richest member of Congress not all too long ago. Graber believes that wealth is playing a sizable role in Delaney’s decision to run and his ability to even poll around 1%.
“If Delaney didn’t have money, nobody would think of him as a presidential candidate,” he said. “I do think we want someone with a more distinguished resume. It’s not a constitutional law problem, but it’s a constitutional problem when we have candidates saying, ‘I have no real history of distinguished public service; therefore, I have no record. Vote for me and imagine the best.’”
But even though Delaney’s climb seems to get steeper every time another candidate enters the race, Syracuse’s Reeher says there might be something to gain from losing.
“As far as what might come out of running and not winning, outperforming expectations in a national contest is always good for a career. Ask Bernie Sanders,” he says. “I don’t know the details of John Delaney’s political life, but based on what I do know, it doesn’t seem like he’s risking much by making a run.”