John Delaney

John Delaney

When 20 Democratic contenders take the stage in Detroit for two nights of debating July 30 and 31, keep your eye on one special candidate.

Not Joe Biden, whose status as a front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination is in some peril. Not Kamala Harris, who helped knock Biden off-stride in the last round of debates. Not Elizabeth Warren, whose poll numbers have been rising, or Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg or any of the other candidates you might have heard of. Instead, keep your eye on John Delaney.

There are two reasons for this: First, you likely won’t see him on a presidential debate stage again. The threshold rises for the third round of debates in September; not many of these candidates will qualify for that round. Second, and the reason we’re most interested today, is that Delaney is the only candidate so far who has talked about an issue that hits home to us: How to build a new economy in rural America. The other Democratic candidates would be wise to steal from Delaney’s platform. So would President Trump, for that matter.

There are two trends we keep coming back to:

1. Over a 20-year-span — from 1995 to 2015 — the United States gained jobs. Yet that job growth was concentrated in a handful of favored places: Two-thirds of the counties in the country lost jobs. That trend is accelerating, too.

2. In 2012, almost 58% of the nation’s venture capital went to just five “superstar” metro areas — San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles, in that order. By 2017, that figure was close to 81%.

Democrats like to talk about the “income gap” and a concentration of wealth — but here’s the “income gap” and concentration of wealth they don’t talk about: The new economy is clustering jobs in a relative handful of metro areas. It’s both mystifying and completely understandable why neither party wants to talk about this. To fix this might require more government intervention in the free market than Republicans are philosophically comfortable with. Democrats aren’t averse to government intervention, but they’ve lost so much touch with rural areas that they don’t seem aware there’s a problem.

Indeed, many of the candidates on the debate stage come from states that benefit from this “great divergence,” as economists call it. We don’t see Harris making the case for why tech companies should forgo Silicon Valley and set up shop in some smaller city in the middle of the country. Why should she, when three of those top five venture capital locations are in her state?

That’s where Delaney comes in. For six years, he represented rural western Maryland in the U.S. House, where he did not make much of a mark. He also didn’t make much of an impression in the first round of debates, except for appearing surprised when the moderator called on him.

We cannot tell you that Delaney should be the Democratic nominee or the next president. But we can tell you that he’s the only candidate talking about how to counteract this “great divergence.”

He proposes what he calls a “Heartland Fair Deal” and says “we need a country where it’s equally likely that a city kid moves to rural America for a job as vice versa.” Rhetoric is cheap, and Delaney’s proposals likely aren’t. But they do represent some creative thinking about a problem that many politicians don’t seem to have thought about at all. Here are some of Delaney’s proposals:

  • Forgive student loans for college graduates who move to rural areas and live there for at least 10 years. This would address two problems at once — rural areas are losing population and the population that’s left often doesn’t have the skills demanded by the new economy. Delaney’s proposal is not radical. It’s a variation of programs already put in place by Republicans in Kansas and Maine — and recently approved by the Republicans who run Virginia’s tobacco commission that oversees a trust fund for economic development in Southside and Southwest Virginia. The program the tobacco commission approved applies only for certain jobs, and requires no more than a four-year stay. Delaney’s program would require people to put down deeper roots — which seems more likely to have the desired effect.
  • Give a priority to government contractors who have majority of employees in rural areas. Think of this as a kind of rural affirmative action. This seems similar to a proposal recently advanced by a Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley — Ro Khanna — to “spread the digital wealth.” More specifically, Delaney proposes that 20% of such contracts go to rural areas.
  • Give unspecified incentives for companies building “negative emission technology” to set up in rural America, especially former coal counties. It’s unclear what those incentives would be, but let’s give Delaney credit anyway. Other candidates embrace eliminating fossil fuels without ever thinking what that means for communities whose economies have been built on coal. Yes, we should save the planet, but does that mean sacrificing one part of it? Delaney says no — that we can both transition to renewables and put some of those jobs in coal counties. Others should listen to him.
  • Revise the provision of the recent tax law that created “opportunity zones” in certain communities where companies can qualify for tax breaks. The Trump administration has touted this as a major advance, although we’ve tried opportunity zones before, with mixed results at best. Furthermore, even Forbes magazine has said the way the law is written, the biggest beneficiaries are investors looking for tax write-offs, not the communities looking for jobs. Delaney wants to “to focus more on operating businesses, rather than investing in real estate.” This is something that requires more detail, but Delaney’s instincts are correct.
  • Delaney also includes a vague line about supporting entrepreneurship in “mid-sized cities adjacent to rural America.” This caught our eye because it references a debate that goes on in economic development circles: Is it better to focus on the most rural parts of the country, or focus on mid-sized cities (such as Roanoke) on the theory it’s easier to promote economic growth in places like that — and any economic growth there helps adjacent rural areas? Delaney gives no details, but the mere inclusion of this line suggests that he’s thought more deeply about the rural economy than any of the other candidates running for president, either on that debate stage or off.

Then again, that’s not a high bar to clear.

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