The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The question that could decide the 2020 election

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) on Capitol Hill in 2015. (Andrew Harnik/For The Washington Post)

The first declared candidate for president in 2020 has made 19 trips to Iowa or New Hampshire since last summer. He has published a book on how to “unify our divided nation.” He is “having a blast.” And he does not seem troubled that you may have no idea that he is in the race, or possibly even who he is.

It will be up to the good Democrats of Iowa and New Hampshire to fix that, says Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.).

It’s worth sitting down with Delaney, as I did recently over breakfast, not because he’s necessarily going to be the next president — though, after 2016, you’d be foolish to count anyone out at this stage — but because he has thought carefully and intelligently about what kind of leadership the next president should provide, whoever he or she turns out to be.

As a moderate, wealthy, self- ­described “pragmatic idealist” committed to bipartisanship and compromise in the service of accomplishment, Delaney might not seem the likeliest standard-­bearer for the Democrats in 2020. The party, after all, is often depicted as galloping toward angry resistance and full-blown socialism, promising free tuition, single-payer health care and a government job for anyone who wants one.

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) is airing an ad for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. (Video: John Delaney)

But Delaney said his meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire over the past year have convinced him that many voters are no longer all that captivated by the old Bernie vs. Hillary dynamic. He is finding them receptive to the argument that an appeal to bipartisanship may be not only good for the country but, when the Republicans under President Trump have become so meanly partisan, a winning strategy to boot.

“The more I’m in it, the less it seems to be about policy choices and the more about a values approach to the presidency,” he said. “How can we restore some sense of respect to the presidency? How do we restore civility and competence in government? How do we start feeling good again about what’s happening in Washington?”

Delaney recalled a recent meeting with about 15 Democrats at a Pizza Ranch in Winterset, Iowa, where the head of the local party, a union electrician, said he had been a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — but opposed single-payer health insurance and free college tuition.

“So I asked him, why was he a Bernie supporter?” Delaney recalled. “And he said, ‘He was honest, he was genuine, he was actually talking about priorities that were important to my family.’ ”

Delaney champions plenty of specific policy measures in his book, “The Right Answer: How We Can Unify Our Divided Nation”: universal prekindergarten to broaden opportunity, an expanded earned-income tax credit to boost low-wage workers, universally available (but not mandatory) national service for high school graduates, and more.

But his broader message is that one party alone isn’t going to accomplish any of these — and that even the most sensible and broadly supported reforms aren’t happening because of the hyperpartisanship that is “destroying our country.”

“Imagine that you’re trying to do business with someone and the first words out of your mouth are ‘You’re stupid and everything you think is wrong. Now let’s work out a deal,’ ” he writes in his book. “That would never fly in the business world, and it obviously doesn’t work so well in politics, either.”

For Delaney, Trump’s depredations only strengthen the argument. The nation isn’t preparing for the future, in education, infrastructure, research or technology, because the government can’t get anything done, he said. A lot of Democrats share that concern — but so do a lot of independents and a growing number of Republican voters.

“Democrats should be the party that brings people together,” he argued. “It’s not only the right thing, it’s what people are looking for.”

In his first 100 days in office, Delaney says he would champion only measures with bipartisan support, such as criminal-justice reform, infrastructure development and dealing with the opioid crisis. He would go to Congress once a quarter and take questions, unscripted, from members on both sides of the aisle.

Other Democratic candidates likely will be making this kind of argument for pragmatic leadership — former mayors and governors, maybe former business executives, too. Given that field, Delaney knows pundits aren’t going to take a little-known three-term congressman from Maryland all that seriously unless he surprises in the early contests.

But if he falls short, it won’t be for lack of a theory of the case.

“I tell voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, this is your job,” he said. “If you don’t find unknown candidates, you have no reason to exist in this process.”

In 1976, he said, the question was how to restore trust to a corrupt government, and the process produced Jimmy Carter.

“Today the central question is, ‘How do you bring the country back together?’ ” Delaney said. “If that’s not the question, then I’m not the winner.”

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Read more:

John Delaney: Why I’m running for president

Danielle Allen: John Delaney falls short of what the moment demands

The Post’s View: Behold, a bipartisan congressman

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats seek the key to beating Trump in 2020

Richard Cohen: For Democrats, 2020 should be about one thing