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Undaunted by low polling, John Delaney keeps his show on the road

Rep. John Delaney on beating Trump in 2020

"What I really don't like is people who aren't practical," John Delaney says as he drives to Guthrie County, a rural section of Iowa that President Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016. 

He's venting about proposals like "Medicare for All" and free college that have been embraced by many of his competitors. Without mentioning specific politicians, Delaney -- sitting behind the wheel of the Dodge Ram pickup once owned by his late father -- goes on to say that "big goals have gotten a bad name" because candidates who put up "pie in the sky ideas" want to get "attention."

A former Maryland congressman, Delaney was the first Democrat to enter the presidential race back in 2017. Since then, he's been on an almost non-stop tour of Iowa, visiting all 99 counties in the state as he tries to stand out in a party that's moved sharply to the left. 

When it comes to healthcare, Delaney says he would prefer to have "a conversation" that starts from scratch, but adds that this is not possible because a sixth of the American economy is built on the healthcare industry. At campaign stops, Delaney calls for a new public health option with a tax credit for those who want to buy private health insurance instead. He labels calls to eliminate the private insurance industry "a terrible idea" and "disastrous politics."

Delaney knows something about the subject, having made his fortune starting and then selling health care companies. He has at least $3 million dollars still invested in the private health care industry, according to his financial disclosure forms.

As he checks his side mirror for traffic, Delaney takes off his sunglasses and warns that Democrats will not get elected if they push Medicare for All. He argues that government-run health insurance doesn't reimburse providers at the same rate as the private industry, which he says would force hospitals, especially in rural areas, to close down.

"I know that a lot of the people say, well, trust us, we'll have such a better government program. I mean, you know, that sounds like Trump, right? It will be 'beautiful.'"

Delaney says his favorite word in the English language is "Grace," which happens to also be the name of his daughter. He calls himself "an active Roman Catholic," adding that he gets his "social justice values" from his Church, and that Democrats "should talk about" how faith informs their outlook. 

He says that while the separation of church and state is "incredibly important," the Democrats who keep bringing it up can be misinterpreted. "I think sometimes in defense of that, which I will absolutely always defend, we come off as not having a faith when that is actually not true."

A few minutes later, Delaney accidentally drops his sunglasses under the seat. He doesn't pick them up, keeping his eyes on the road to avoid losing his train of thought.

"I don't think a four-year college degree is a basic human right," Delaney says, wondering aloud whether higher education should even take that long to complete. "This notion that everyone's got to go to college, I just think, in many ways has doomed a whole generation of young Americans."

Delaney, who became the youngest-ever C.E.O of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange at age 33, questions if "most colleges are actually delivering value to their students," and emphasizes that instead "you need skills."

"We can't allow there to be this incredible inflation in higher education. There is going to be an endless flow of student loans," Delaney says, adding that the government takeover of student lending has deepened the crisis. "A lot of the curriculum has to reorientate itself to be teaching things that allow people to get jobs more easily."

By the end of this month, Delaney will have spent two years of campaigning for a job that won't be easy to get. He says he didn't expect the field, which now includes 24 other candidates, to be this crowded.

On this hot, humid Saturday, with the air conditioner cranked up to keep the car cool, Delaney says he "always" tells the truth, and that friends call him a good leader because he's "very good at getting people behind a goal." One thing he says he wants to accomplish as president is to make use of "American exceptionalism" and technological innovation to tackle climate change.

He begins by calling the premise of the Green New Deal "absolutely impossible," but says the energy and excitement created by the proposal is to be applauded. 

"The notion that in 12 years we could actually transition this enormous economy of ours off fossil fuels is just a fairy tale," Delaney says. "There is not enough alternative energy sources to power the U.S. economy in the next 12 years but I think we can get there by 2050."

Delaney says he wants American companies and innovators focused on the task of battery storage and transmission and as well creation of technologies that can directly capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He says that the U.S taking the lead on this path will bring other countries like China and India, both major polluters, to the table.  

"It is very hard for the United States to say, 'let me tell you what we've been doing for the last 100 years. We've been emitting greenhouse gases like crazy for 100 years and creating a dominant economy. Now that you're starting to get in the game economically, we're like no, no, no, you can't do any of that stuff.'"

Delaney says he's added over 10,000 miles on his dad's truck since January. Yet despite all that time on the road, he continually polls toward the bottom of the Democratic field. So what inspires him to keep going? 

"So many Americans are just struggling and they just, you know, remain optimistic about the country," he says. "And I think that's an incredibly positive thing for us as a nation."

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