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J. Palmer Wishes to Be President. If Only.
You have never heard of this man. This is not likely to change.
Venture capitalist Jason Palmer, who in two weeks will turn 52, has an impressive resume. According to his bio, he’s been in executive and leadership positions at Microsoft, Kaplan Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the investment firm New Markets Venture Partners, a VC outfit for budding education technology. His politics are rooted in so-called “conscious capitalism” (putatively less predatory and cynical than just plain capitalism), modernizing government and harnessing America’s talent on the global stage. I met him last week at a poker game, where he casually mentioned the possibility of running against Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. This passage is from his announcement, which did indeed follow within 72 hours.
“I have been called the purple candidate, and embrace the moniker proudly since I firmly believe our platform’s values can and should transcend party affiliation. These are American values, not party values. Period.”
I felt as though we should chat.
ME: I talked in the top about how we met at a poker game, about your as then still tentative plan to announce this week. Now, Jason, my dream program is a show that I would call What the Fuck Is the Matter With You? with Bob Garfield. It’s obviously a compelling idea, but I've never been able to produce the show because I’d have to pay the bookers millions of dollars — because who is ever going to appear on a show called? What the Fuck Is the Matter With You, right?
JASON PALMER: Okay.
ME: So I don’t have that show, but I do have my blog and my first question is, “What the fuck is the matter with you?”
JASON PALMER: Well, without swearing because I would prefer not to swear, even though I do feel that way, what’s the matter with me is the same thing that’s the matter with a lot of people right now, people that feel despair that our country is kind of slipping away from us. That we’re losing our democracy, that their voice doesn’t matter, and honestly, it’s getting worse and worse. In the debates that are going on, people screaming at each other, not talking with respect, not appreciating each other. Polarization is at the highest level it’s ever been. I kept waiting for anybody to enter the democratic race for primary. And finally I decided, you know what? I’m going to step forward with the positive voice and put together the best set of policy proposals for how we can actually have a positive, optimistic way to bring the pendulum back to this Great American democracy that we all know and love. But fear is slipping away, and it’s a big decision for me, honestly. I mean, I’m stepping away from a venture capital firm that I’ve been building for the last seven years to do this and stepping away from all the great companies that I’ve been working with and trying to grow up because I don’t want to just work with, you know, 15 companies that we have. I want to try to inspire and motivate. The millions of people out there that are working to improve the world in little, tiny ways to get more resources and more dollars and take our country back. Period.
ME: Are you suggesting that a presidential candidate who describes half the electorate as vermin, who he will eradicate, is disrespectful?
JASON PALMER: Yes, I think disrespectful is a tremendous understatement of the awfulness that is Donald Trump and the way he behaves. Any sign of civility in our politics has been squished out of existence by Donald Trump. But I’m not running just because I don’t like Donald Trump and think he’s a threat to our democracy. I’m running because we have to have a positive vision of the future and a clear path to get there and I’m very worried that both parties will not have that and will not be enunciating that this year and it’s essential that we do. Otherwise, millions of young voters are not going to turn out. Millions more of independents will not participate in our great democracy. I can’t tell you how many small business owners and just hard-working, striving Americans have said they’ve tuned out of politics. They don’t want to have anything to do with politics. It’s dirty. It’s disgusting — when, in fact, politics can be uplifting, and inspirational, and actually the biggest lever that we have to solve the greatest problems of our time, whether that’s climate change, whether that’s helping people get living wage jobs. Helping people, you know, to get the American dream. That dream is still possible. I’m not giving it up. And I intend to rally as many people as possible to that banner.
ME: At the poker game, which as we speak, was about five days ago, yeah — in the home, by the way, of a very prominent American journalist — you said that you still weren’t quite certain of your decision. You seemed poised to announce. But you said you weren’t quite there, that you were still talking the idea over with your family. At any point, did your children say, “Dad, what the fuck is the matter with you?”
JASON PALMER: Definitely. You know, I and my co-parent have decided to keep our children out of the campaign. But it’s the voices of young people that ring in my ears the most because, you know, I listened to your podcast with your youngest daughter and it’s heartbreaking. And she’s not alone. You know, they just don’t think they’re going to do as well as their parents. They feel like the planet is going to burn up and why the hell isn’t anybody doing anything? And I want to give them a voice and give them a path to fix this world that we have screwed up for them. The older generations have screwed it up and we need to empower them and teach them how to use their voice and to use our democracy to take this country back.
ME: At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I can certainly stipulate, based on at least one evening of poker, that you’re a very nice guy and a smart guy and a pretty good poker player.
JASON PALMER: Thank you.
ME: Having done some subsequent research, though, I can also say that you are as obscure a gentleman as has ever run for public office. Your social media profile is near zero, the news release of your candidacy, as far as I can ascertain, did not appear in any news outlet. Jason, are you in the federal Witness Protection Program? I mean, there were mafia whistleblowers with more Google hits than you. [NOTE: Even at the poker game, the host persisted in calling him Jonah and Jerry. I thought it might be helpful to broaden the possibilities, so thenceforth I myself called him Jedediah, Juniper, Jolene and so forth, which I flattered myself into believing Jason appreciated, though he did not explicitly say as much.]
JASON PALMER: But there are thousands of people, many of whom, you know, “liked” my LinkedIn Post or my Twitter post or have been emailing and calling me who know that I’m someone who cares about the entrepreneurs I work with very hard to help them succeed. They’re the heroes here. They also know that I’ve been a turnaround CEO for companies in education-tech and technology generally. It’s true. I'm not, you know, always the person on stage, although I have been on stage. Sometimes I’m the person who’s working hard behind the scenes to help make the entrepreneurs successful, and this is new for me to put myself out there like this. You know, I don’t even have a Wikipedia page as of today, although I feel like one is likely to pop up in the next few weeks and it’s, you know, this is part of how you get elected in the United States is you have to have a media presence. You have to have a social-media presence. It’s not that I have nothing. By the way, I have 3,000 followers. But I know that’s not a million followers.
ME: It’s 997,000 fewer than a million. I mean, that’s just a little back of the envelope arithmetic.
JASON PALMER: Exactly. Exactly.
ME: Now as you know, the cost of a presidential campaign is stratospheric, measured in the 10s or hundreds of millions of dollars. So far, Joe Biden has banked $77 million. Or if you compute it on the Donald Trump valuation scale, $900 trillion. [NOTE: That is a hilarious quip, and this time I explicitly asked the interviewee for acknowledgement of my comic genius. None such was forthcoming, so I sighed and moved on.] All right, what is your bankroll?
JASON PALMER: So right now we’ve raised less than $1,000,000, although our goal is to raise more than $1,000,000 by the filing date, the next filing date of December 31st. And I think we can get there. Actually I do think that’s a very achievable goal. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that Joe Biden is $76 million ahead of us because I’m a startup founder. I founded multiple companies and it’s David versus Goliath here and I’m used to David versus Goliath. It’s what my entrepreneurs do. It’s what I do, I used to do when I was an entrepreneur. And you have to use a different set of gorilla marketing techniques. Jujitsu differentiate yourself, really focus on solving the customers’ problem, or in this case the citizens’ problem and the citizens’ problem is that nobody is speaking for them. And that there’s too much kind of inside Washington. Dysfunction. You know, this is partly why Trump got elected in 2016, is he was perceived as an outsider who would bring sort of the business, the benefits of running the government like a business to Washington. And that theory sounds good at some level.
ME: On the grossly ill informed level. I mean it’s a commonplace that does not bear up under even a moment’s scrutiny. [NOTE: Not to mention that Trump’s “business experience” is better described as “a lifetime of civil and criminal fraud.”] But let’s put that aside. Your point is that if you come with such a premise and you can articulate it in a way that people understand and it emotionally resonates, you can get a lot of value out of that without having a $100 million advertising budget.
JASON PALMER: That’s right there. Not every dollar is created equal in a political campaign, and I have studied political campaigns quite closely, you know, some of the people that I admire from the last campaign include Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang. In fact, the first person I donated to was actually Kamala Harris. You know, all of them raised less than $30 million, but were still unable to overcome the Biden juggernaut. But they also ran very traditional campaigns. And this is going to be a very different campaign. Some of the things we have planned to roll out over the next six weeks, they’re not something you would see from a normal candidate who’s not trying to create a movement, trying to show a technological visionary way forward to modernize our government, to change our economic system to a system that’s more about inclusive capitalism (or conscious capitalism, we sometimes call it) to build a people-first talent economy. This is a very different approach and it’s going to have a very different set of guerrilla marketing tactics. We’re running it like a lean startup.
ME: Well, on the subject of guerrilla marketing, and I guess I should preface this question by saying what you may not have divined just playing cards with me for a few hours. I happen to have incredible ideas. I’m just a guy who generates great ideas. I mean, as you’re a VC, I probably at some point will be talking to you about getting in on the ground floor of my chain of poultry sushi restaurants called Salmonella Villa.
JASON PALMER: This is true actually?
ME: No, it’s not true. I also have been talking about an idea for horse vending machines, that if you ever want to buy a horse and you don’t want to schlep out to the country, now you can just go to the corner and plug a vending machine and buy a horse. That has a few small technological challenges that haven’t quite been solved, but the point I’m trying to make is that I am a brilliant idea generator, and if we’re talking about guerrilla marketing and a value approach to getting attention, I guess I have to call your attention to billionaire Kim Kardashian and multi 100 millionaire Paris Hilton. Who began their careers with sex tapes. Have you given any thought to a sex tape? They cost nothing to produce, they go viral in a heartbeat. And your name recognition will you know, it’ll soar.
JASON PALMER: I have no interest in getting my campaign recognized in that manner. This is a campaign about respect, civility, inclusiveness. My agenda is, you know, helping young people get to that first quality job, their first salaried job. This is one of my favorite things to talk about at Jeffersonian dinners that I host is, you know, what was your first job where you got paid a salary instead of an hourly wage. We’re talking about the fact that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and we need to restore our country back to where it was before that decision and it’s not going to happen without effort. It’s going to take a lot of effort.
ME: I’m just kind of spitballing here. You’re a VC. You’re very familiar with the process …
JASON PALMER: OK, I hope it’s not part of your Q&A, but I still stand behind my answer.
ME: [NOTE: Let’s see where he stands after the South Carolina primary.] There is a guy named Ryan Binkley, who you may have heard of. But nobody else has. He is a businessman and a pastor running for the Republican presidential nomination — on a spectacularly mainstream platform of fixing immigration and balancing the budget, neither of which he will succeed at even if he is somehow elected president. And he will not be. In Iowa, being he’s been at this for a while, he is currently polling at between zero and two per cent. His goal, he says, is to wind up in the top four in the Iowa caucuses. I’m not sure what the advantage of being #4 might be, but you know, at least he has articulated a plan. Jason, since you will not be the next President of the United States, what is your plan? What are you up to? I mean, I don’t think it’s book sales. [NOTE: At the moment, he has no book.] It’s not the speaking circuit, I don’t think. You probably don’t even qualify for Secret Service protection. Are you thinking about 2028? Are you thinking about 2088? What’s the play? Or as the people in your business say, the VC business, what’s the exit?
JASON PALMER: I agree that there’s less than a 1% chance that I’m going to win. However, I’m going to run as hard as I can and try to win because I think those chances will go up over time. The main reason that I’m doing this is to present a positive vision of the future with concrete policies that can move our country forward and it’s not going to be based on any book that I’ve written. In fact, if you want to talk about any of the issue areas like in climate change, I’m a big fan of Saul Griffiths rewiring America plan, which could generate 25,000,000 green jobs. Or if you want to talk about jobs that pay a living wage, there’s an organization called Jobs for the Future that I’m a huge fan of. They have a plan to cultivate or develop 75,000,000 quality jobs for young Americans to help them get into the jobs for the future, hence the name of the organization.
And so it really is to get these positive ideas into the Overton Window now as opposed to it taking 10 or 20 years or maybe never [NOTE: He refers to the spectrum of policy notions that is generally deemed acceptable, if not necessarily achievable, in public debate. It’s also known by pollster George Gallup’s term “the jaws of consent.” In these days of rancor and polarization, alas, those jaws are wired shut.] for these positive ideas to become part of our national political dialogue, and I just offer myself as a messenger about what the future could be. And I hope that I’m able to change the debate in a positive direction, and I hope that this becomes part of the Democratic Party platform. In terms of myself, you know, I’ll be honest that I don’t know exactly what I will do at the end of this campaign if I don’t win. Part of having the best chance of winning is, you know, committing yourself fully. You’re going to do everything you can to win. And that’s what I’m committed to. But I do recognize that 99% of candidates don’t. I’ve taken a leave of absence from my company, New Markets Venture Partners.
Probably the most likely outcome is that I go back to being an impact investor after this campaign and keep investing in great entrepreneurs. You know, a second possibility is that I do well. That I gain the respect of Joe Biden and become sort of like what Pete Buttigieg or Andrew Yang and others did when they dropped out of the race. [NOTE: Bingo! The Mayor Pete Scenario. A longshot campaign that got a hitherto obscure small-city politician named Secretary of Transportation — 14 heartbeats away from the Resolute Desk. Now that is not a what-the-fuck-is-the-matter-with-you sort of strategy. In fact, you can probably not bother to read the rest of his answer.]
Although to be honest, my goal is not to drop out of the race, but to run as long and hard as possible and try to win this. You started off by saying that the pastor wants to get 4th place? That’s not my goal. My goal is to get first or second place in Nevada and New Hampshire, two of the early primary states, and also have a solid showing in South Carolina and Michigan enough that the electorate, as we go into Super Tuesday, will say, “Who is this Jason Palmer? I want to learn more about this Jason Palmer! This is an outsider who actually understands how government works. He has hundreds of friends who have worked in government” — partly from my Gates Foundation experience, partly from my impact investing experience because almost all of my companies have public private partnerships where they work with the government.
We can talk about those. You know, I did once intern for Senator Moynihan, back when I was in college. Now, that doesn’t give me as much experience as my friends who have, you know, run various subcommittees or worked for presidents in the Oval Office. But I do have many friends that I talked to about these issues, and I have been reading. You know, I’m a sponsoring supporter of Brookings, Progressive Policy Institute, Center for American Progress. Like, I can hang with any politician or policy person in almost every area. And the reason why is because I care about our country and this was a path I almost considered. You know, I went to the University of Virginia. I was a government major who went, you know, participated in Larry Sabato’s class, very inspired by those classes to pursue a path in government. That’s what I thought I was going to do when I went to UVA. But I accidentally started a business my 4th year of school there and kind of got hooked on entrepreneurship. And I’ve been doing entrepreneurship ever since, and now I see how entrepreneurship and philanthropy and government can really work together to transform our society. And I want to put that message out there, whether it’s called Conscious Capitalism or Inclusive Capitalism or a people-first talent economy? There is a set of ideas there that are not my own that are actually based on the best people I know in my network who have written their own books. I’m going to bring forth those best books and policies that have already been written by the experts in those areas and lift them up. And say this is where we can go. Vote for me.
ME: Well, if you do end up writing a campaign memoir, may I humbly suggest that the title be Defenestrated from the Overton Window?
JASON PALMER: I think we will limit the number of people who understand what that means, but it is a valuable concept. [NOTE: No shit.]
ME: I promise you the gratuitous ridicule portion of this conversation is nearly at an end. But in your press release, you acknowledge being a long-shot candidate. I even sort of disagree with that. Betting on Denver to win the Super Bowl, that’s a long shot. Your race is more along the lines of a cry for help. I mean in the best way. You want to help and you’ll need help.
JASON PALMER: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore, yeah.
ME: Peter Finch! But as you’ve said, you want to influence the national conversation, which is more than noble. You still must have some sort of critical mass in order to make that happen. And I understand your strategy. New Hampshire and Nevada.
JASON PALMER: Yeah, New Hampshire, Nevada. Come in first or second place.
ME: And If you do that, as certainly you know, people discover you. [NOTE: I didn’t mention Rick Santorum, Gary Hart, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, but I should have. I foolishly did mention Howard Dean, who I remembered as beginning his insurgency in Iowa. But, nope, his chances ended there, when a 4-second sound bite of him trying to whoop up his dejected followers destroyed his political career forever. My bad.] But, I mean, things happen and things can happen suddenly. But if your strategy quickly shows up to be unavailing, what’s your next move?
JASON PALMER: I am fully committed to running this race until the Democratic electorate chooses who’s going to be their standard bearer next November.
ME: Yeah. Well, I hope the Republican electorate don’t bear the standard against the Capitol police, if you know what I’m saying.
JASON PALMER: I do. I do. That’s part of my launch video, but I’m not sure if you’ve seen it.
ME: I have seen it. Well, Jason, I know I’ve spent the last 35 minutes making fun of you because it’s, you know, it’s a bit of fish in the barrel, but I must say I’m sympathetic with your concerns. I admire your devotion to the democracy, which is imploding before our very eyes.
JASON PALMER: That’s why I’m running.
ME: And you know, I think that there’s probably no indignity in American life greater than begging for money every single day from friends and families and Adelsons and total strangers. So I hope you survive that. I don’t want to talk about religion, but evidently you’re a Quaker, which you share with, I believe, only one President, and that’s Richard Nixon.
JASON PALMER: Yes, the Quaker, we are not happy that our one President, Richard Nixon, he really does not represent the denomination.
ME: And jeez, I just hope it works. It’s not gonna, but it’s not going to stop me from wishing you all the best.
JASON PALMER: Thank you. I appreciate that, Bob. And I do want to tell you that I think that my message really is striking a chord, even though people know I’m a long shot less than 1% candidate. You know, I’ve not just met you and the other people at the poker table, but I don't even know if I’m allowed to mention all the other people that I’ve met in the last week. But I, you know what, I guess I have to go for it because I’m a long shot candidate, but I’ve shook hands with Stacey Abrams, who I admire. As a leader, I have shook hands with Bob Woodward, who’s done an incredible job of chronicling the last, I don’t even know how many presidents he’s chronicled at this point. Andrea Mitchell, who did such an incredible job of helping women break into the news media. You know, and these are people who took my business cards and kind of looked at me in a Hmm, who is this guy? sort of way. And I hope to have a similar conversation with each of them in the future because I’m trying to change the conversation and their voices are important here in how that happens.
ME: One last bit of unsolicited advice, then. When this is published, which will be tomorrow, don’t send it to Bob Woodward and Andrea Mitchell. It might be counted against you.
JASON PALMER: Okay, I won’t. You know, also a lot of people have said, I’m willing to give you advice behind the scenes but don’t use my name. Not those two, but there’s a general feeling of don’t do anything that could hurt Biden, that people are very worried about. As a legislative President, he’s been enormously successful.
ME: He has been, but his public cognitive failures, you know, put that all at risk. And you’re right, I didn’t think he really had the chops. As a legislative President, you know, his legacy is working across the aisle, but the only wall that ever got fully built during the last administration is along that aisle. But he’s somehow managed to get some programs and judicial appointees through congress. Oh, and you can use that “wall” line if you want. It’s not bad. [NOTE: That also will not happen.]
JASON PALMER: I hope you published the full, that you’re saying too, because it's fascinating.
ME: Once again, Juniper, congratulations (I suppose) and all the best of luck.
JASON PALMER: Thank you, Bob. This conversation has made me a better man, and been the honor of a lifetime. [NOTE: Paraphrased.]
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