It was supposed to be like the brewpub, the way everything since then had been like the brewpub. Set up shop, shake a few hands, and watch the money and the media plaudits come rolling in. What is presidential politics about, after all, if not knowing how to put a new spin on an old idea? What is the Democratic Party, circa 2019, if not the lower downtown of thirty years ago — run down, lacking leadership, caught between past and future? It had all worked before. It had worked for so long.
It’ll take some time to fill out the paperwork, but John Hickenlooper’s campaign for president ended Tuesday night in Detroit. Like so many of the answers given by the former Colorado governor during the second Democratic presidential primary debate, Hickenlooper 2020 wasn’t cut off or drowned out so much as it just kind of faded away, as if the candidate had suddenly forgotten why he was there in the first place.
The math is insurmountable. Hickenlooper needs both a surge in the polls and an exponential increase in the number of donors to his campaign in the next few weeks if he hopes to qualify for the third Democratic debate, and nothing about his performance Tuesday night suggested that either is at all likely. At eight minutes and 48 seconds, Hickenlooper spoke the least of any of the ten candidates on stage, coming in just behind Marianne Williamson, the new-age author and activist who warned the debate audience of the “dark psychic force” being marshaled by President Donald Trump.
The end, when it comes, will mark the first political defeat in nearly two decades for Hickenlooper, whose charmed career in Colorado politics carried him from part ownership of the Wynkoop Brewing Company to bigwig status in elite civic circles and ultimately to two terms each in the Denver mayor’s office and the governor’s mansion. He did it all without many setbacks or scandals, presiding over a fast-growing, bluish-purple state buoyed by thriving tech and energy sectors and endearing himself to the press and the public with quirkiness and dad jokes.
Though he had always been loath to pin himself down at any one point on the ideological spectrum, in his brief presidential campaign Hickenlooper pivoted toward a committed, one-note centrism, bashing ambitious proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and appearing at one point to compare his more progressive rivals to Joseph Stalin. He continued punching left Tuesday night, pointing over and over again to his tenure as governor as a proof-of-concept for his brand of business-friendly centrist governance.
“We did not build massive government expansions,” said Hickenlooper, who helped bring down Colorado’s uninsured rate in large part by implementing a Medicaid expansion that covered an additional 554,000 people between 2013 and 2018. “What we focused on was making sure that we got people together to get things done, to provide solutions to problems, to make sure that we worked together and created jobs. That’s how we’re going to beat Donald Trump; that’s how were going to win Michigan and the country.”
“If we’re going to force Americans to make these radical changes, they’re not going to go along with it,” Hickenlooper added later, in a brief back-and-forth with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that will be remembered only for the GIF it produced.
There are, to be sure, plenty of Democratic voters who want to hear exactly that kind of message. The problem for Hickenlooper, which was as evident on Tuesday night as it was on the day he launched his campaign, is that his message is no different from the one being delivered — often much more effectively — by at least a dozen of his primary rivals. As former Maryland congressman John Delaney railed against “fairytale economics,” Montana Governor Steve Bullock opted to slam “wish-list economics” — or was it the other way around? Even with only half the Democratic field on stage, there was no shortage of candidates determined to spend all their time, in the words of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, “talking about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Unable to make a clear ideological distinction between Hickenlooper and the dozen other carbon-copied moderate white guys vying for the nomination, his campaign has instead relied on an increasingly desperate series of misrepresentations of his record in order to justify his presence in the race. Here in the real Colorado, it has been at times difficult to recognize the fictional paradise that he talks up on the campaign trail, or the starring role in the narrative in which he has cast himself.
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Hickenlooper on Tuesday repeatedly bragged about “beating the NRA” and successfully passing a slate of gun-control legislation after the Aurora shooting. (In reality, he alienated many Democrats by refusing to take a stance on the gun bills until he signed them, then later said he regretted doing so.) Lately, he has taken to highlighting his role as “the first governor in America to implement fully legalized medical and recreational marijuana.” (He opposed Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot measure that legalized recreational cannabis.) As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue for Democratic voters, he has held up the methane regulations Colorado enacted on his watch as a model for strong federal climate policy. (Just…no.)
In the end, Hickenlooper's case to Democratic primary voters rested almost entirely on a vague — and ironically, deeply Trumpian — notion of himself as the ultimate deal-maker, the sainted leader who can bring all sides to the table and, through sheer force of personality and brewpub-forged know-how, Get Things Done. It doesn't seem to have been a very successful sales pitch. The finer points of policy have never been Hickenlooper's strong suit — he has repeatedly flubbed basic details about the progressive proposals he criticizes — and that was again on display Tuesday night when, in an exchange with Warren, he dismissed the Green New Deal as a "distraction," seemingly unaware of the specifics of the green-jobs proposal Warren was touting.
"I put a real policy on the table, to create 1.2 million new jobs in green manufacturing," Warren told Hickenlooper. "There's going to be a $23 billion worldwide market for this. This could revitalize huge cities across this country. And no one wants to talk about it. What you want to do instead is find the Republican talking point, a made-up piece of some other part, and say, 'We don't really have to do anything.' That's the problem we've got in Washington right now."
Hickenlooper didn’t respond.