John Hickenlooper wants to be the last Democrat standing. He'll need a plan.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

The last time I’d been in Robie’s Country Store, a local landmark in Hooksett, N.H., I’d been shadowing Jon Huntsman. That was in the early summer of 2011, and Huntsman, the former Utah governor who had just returned from his posting as President Obama’s ambassador to China, was making his first, much ballyhooed appearance as a presidential hopeful, positioning himself as a moderate alternative to Mitt Romney.

Huntsman was shaky, his pitch to voters confusing. I compared him to the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from “Saturday Night Live.” It turned out to be the apex of his campaign.

So it was hard not to draw some comparisons as I returned to Robie’s late last month, this time with John Hickenlooper on his first swing through the state.

To be clear, Hickenlooper isn’t Huntsman, and it would be unfair to make too much of the parallels. The former Colorado governor is a more accomplished politician, and he hasn’t been living in exile for the last two years. No frenzied horde of national journalists awaited his arrival; it was pretty much just me.

But like Huntsman, Hickenlooper holds himself out as a self-effacing, consensus-seeking governor at a moment when the only consensus that interests a lot of Democrats is the one a jury might reach in the eventual trial of Donald Trump.

And for Hickenlooper too, these opening weeks of the campaign have been, if not exactly a train wreck, then maybe a minor collision with reality, starting with his first interview on “Morning Joe,” when Hickenlooper — the founder of a hugely successful chain of brewpubs and restaurants — refused to let himself be called a capitalist.

Hickenlooper, sounding remarkably Huntsman-esque, later explained that he didn’t want to get bogged down in political labels, even though “capitalist” would seem to be less of a label than an actual definition of what he used to be.

“It’s very rare that the first time I’m asked a question I’m going to get it right,” Hickenlooper admitted to me at Robie’s, with characteristic candor. “I wish I’d answered it more elegantly, for sure.”

None of which is to say that Hickenlooper doesn’t have plenty of time to find his footing, or that he doesn’t have a chance to win the nomination in 2020. He does.

What he seems to be missing right now — and what a lot of Democratic hopefuls seem to be grasping for in this opening stage of the campaign — is a halfway convincing theory of how to get there.

*****

Hickenlooper walks into a room with assets few of his better-known or better-funded rivals can match. He has more executive experience than any of them, along with a pretty compelling personal story and a record any candidate would envy.

In 20 years of following presidential candidates around — I know, lost time, I try not to dwell on it — I’ve never before heard a candidate talk about how he got laid off and stayed out of work for two years, and how all they did at the unemployment office was offer him useless advice on writing cover letters. (Hickenlooper was a government geologist during a recession in the 1980s.) It’s like hearing a Springsteen song run for president.

Then, as Hickenlooper tells it, he was helping his brother repair a roof one day when he noticed a new brewpub in the distance and thought: Hey, there’s a pretty good idea! Even his mother, he says, wouldn’t invest.

From there, he walks his audiences — sizable ones, if not overflowing, during this first campaign trip — through a series of episodes all meant to illustrate a single theme. As the owner, eventually, of 15 restaurants, he persuaded all his competitors to get behind a joint marketing campaign, helping to create Denver’s thriving LoDo district.

Then, after jumping into politics and getting himself elected mayor, he went out to the surrounding suburbs, where resentment of the city was deeply entrenched, and got 34 mayors — most of them Republicans — to support a regional tax that paid for a new light-rail system.

Then, after becoming the first Denver mayor to win the governorship in more than a century, Hickenlooper got energy companies to unite behind a plan to reduce methane emissions. (Once near the bottom of the pack in job creation, Colorado now has one of the country’s hottest economies, by the way.)

The idea here is clear, even if Hickenlooper sometimes rushes through his sentences or interrupts himself before he can finish them. This is a guy who bridges what are supposed to be unbridgeable divides. If Hickenlooper were the governor of Connecticut, the Red Sox and Yankees would agree to share the state equally, and everybody would win.

He knows how all this talk of compromise sounds in the Trump era, when a lot of younger Americans can’t even remember a time when the two parties in Washington collaborated on anything other than short-term bills to keep the government from shuttering. He’s pitching it anyway.

“Isn’t that kind of what the country needs?” Hickenlooper asked me. “No one thought it was possible in the city, and we got the mayors together. No one thought it was possible in Lower Downtown, and we got the restaurants together. No one thought it was possible at the statehouse, and we got the environmentalists and the oil and gas people together.

“At every level, there is an existing disbelief that is your hardest obstacle.”

To push past that obstacle, however, you probably need a strategy to push back against the prevailing cynicism. Voters in New Hampshire seemed to like Hickenlooper enough, but they didn’t walk away with a concrete sense of what sets him apart from other Democrats, other than having been a good governor.

Hickenlooper’s campaign signs in New Hampshire carried the slogan “Stand Tall,” which probably made sense to someone, or maybe they were left over from another campaign and could be had cheap. Is he saying he has a height advantage? Do the other candidates slouch?

I thought about this for longer than I’d like to admit, and really your guess is as good as mine.

The real question here for Hickenlooper, and for other Democratic candidates, is whether they’re willing to choose a side on the ideological continuum of the moment, which has nothing to do with the left-vs.-center debate that used to cleave the party.

Four years ago, I wrote several times about the real philosophical dispute in the Republican Party — between governing Republicans who still believed in the value of expertise and anti-governing Republicans whose goal was to blow up the system. (Guess who won.)

Democrats now can’t be so easily divvied up. Rather, they’re all looking for a comfortable place to stand on a spectrum between emulating Trump’s view of governance, on one hand, and sweeping it aside on the other.  

On one end of that spectrum is a candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who fully embrace the idea that governing from the White House now is about going it alone as a party and stoking the fury of your base, rolling out radical solutions and indicting the system as rigged and unworkable.

At the other end would be a candidate — like Hickenlooper — who thinks the system as it exists is still plenty strong enough to function, and that Democrats can still win over a lot of the voters who made their peace with Trump, if only their nominee can show some flexibility and leadership.

When I asked Hickenlooper, for instance, where he stands on some of the Democratic proposals we’ve been hearing to change the rules of the system, like adding Supreme Court justices and eliminating the Electoral College, he hesitated.

“I do worry that if we got rid of the Electoral College completely, it would undermine and somehow separate large parts of rural America from everyone else,” he said. “I’m not against getting there, but I think this is a time when we should be doing everything we can to connect rural America to everyone else.”

*****

There’s an assumption out there that Democratic primary voters are clearly closer to the Sanders-Warren camp and won’t choose a less confrontational candidate. I’m not so sure.

That assumption is undermined, in some part, by the reaction of the growing crowds attracted by Pete Buttigieg, who repeatedly tells anyone who will listen that the election really isn’t about Trump, and who only sounds angry when he’s railing against Mike Pence’s interpretation of Catholic doctrine. (And even then, it’s more of a Midwestern anger, lacking much bite.)

But while Hickenlooper is philosophically on the other end of this spectrum from a Sanders or a Warren, he’s thus far trying to avoid getting drawn into a fight. In fact, his lack of differentiation from the other candidates on this score seems calculated.

That’s because his advisers are hinging their strategy on the time-honored idea of “electability.”

Democratic voters routinely tell pollsters that the thing they want most in a candidate is someone who can beat Trump. So the thinking in Hickenlooper’s camp is that you hang around through all this early drama, and you avoid taking issue with anybody else’s crazy ideas, and you just keep talking about your record and your progressive — but workable — ideas for the country.

And eventually, as the primaries draw nearer, voters will get serious about choosing a candidate who can win, and you’ll be in a great place because here you are as a solid, electable, purple-state governor who has avoided saying anything that will anger the tear-it-down crowd, and you’ll become their perfect default choice.

Which might be a really good strategy in a traditional field of, say, four real candidates. But it’s hard to see how that bears fruit in a field of 15.

You might be able to make yourself palatable to enough Sanders voters by keeping your mouth shut and avoiding a nasty argument over single-payer health care, but even if those voters decide that Sanders can’t win, they’ll still have a bunch of acceptable candidates who more closely reflect their views than you do.

Being everybody’s third choice doesn’t win you the nomination. Just ask Marco Rubio.

Here’s the stone-cold truth: While governors dominated presidential politics for the 30-plus years before Barack Obama arrived, the only governors who won were those who started out with a critique of their own party’s Washington establishment and the direction in which it was drifting.

Ronald Reagan spent decades building a case against the accommodationist policies of the Republican elite. Bill Clinton beseeched his liberal party to focus on middle-class values and economics. George W. Bush campaigned against conservatism that had lost its compassion.

And if a guy like Hickenlooper — who’s never really run a competitive primary, unless you count his first campaign for mayor — is going to follow in their tracks, he’ll probably have to throw down, too.

He’ll have to make voters choose — between the Trump model of speaking to a third of the country and telling it what it wants to hear, or the harder, more pragmatic approach of searching for consensus amid the ruins of Washington.

There are signs, in fact, that Hickenlooper is starting to lean this way. In this op-ed in the Washington Post last week, he pretty soundly rejected the happy liberal version of a Green New Deal, offering more attainable proposals instead. It was his first foray into a fight with the populist base, and that’s the only way Hickenlooper will be a serious factor.

Standing tall is a nice enough idea, as long as you’re not standing around waiting for the campaign to come to you.

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: