John Hickenlooper thinks Americans want a pragmatic president. Will Democratic primary voters agree?

Hickenlooper opens up to Salon about his campaign shakeup — and why he thinks he’s uniquely suited to be president

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 14, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

John Hickenlooper (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
John Hickenlooper (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, wants to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2020. Struggling to register in national polls, his campaign recently underwent a massive shakeup, with a Reuters report revealing that departing advisers told him he does not have enough funds to remain in the race. Given his name recognition in the Centennial State, some pundits think the two-term executive should run for the Senate instead, where a defeat of Republican incumbent Cory Gardner could tip the balance of power.

Hickenlooper’s rationale for remaining in the presidential primaries hinges in large part on his genuine belief in pragmatism — the idea that getting things done and having tangible policy results to show on one's political resume is the most persuasive argument for becoming president. His message is similar to that of fellow Coloradan Gary Hart, a former senator who ran for president in 1988 on centrist principles and dominated in the polls until a personal scandal felled his campaign. Hart himself has argued that Hickenlooper is out of step with the party's current ideals, and certainly it is true that many Democrats have rejected centrist approaches. The strength of candidacies unambiguously to the left of Hickenlooper's, such as those of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who consistently poll in the top five, are proof of this, as is the rise of the firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who defeated on of the top Democrat in the House of Representatives in 2018.

Hickenlooper has his record and his argument for pragmatism. Somewhat paradoxically, this makes him an idealist for pragmatism, a quixotic proponent of slaying real dragons instead of chasing windmills. He is a man swimming against the tide when he insists that success in using state government as a laboratory for democracy ought to count for something among voters. (He made this point recently to Salon when discussing his success in making Colorado the first state to legalize recreational marijuana). Perhaps this is why the Washington Post recently described his presidential campaign as a lonely one. His challenge — if he does not take the advice of those urging him to run for Senate — is to convince Democrats why they should join him at the table.

Salon: I'd like to start with the recent shake-up in your campaign staff. What was the cause of that? Are the reports true that there was disagreement as to the viability of your campaign?

Hickenlooper: You know, we've been trying to focus on where the campaign is going and some of those essential characteristics that I think are unique to me. And certainly, if I keep going back over the old news, I'm never going to get [through] what differentiates me. I mean, I look at literally everyone else who is running, and I feel I'm the one person who has actually done what other people are talking about. The big, progressive ideas that my fellow Democrats propose — I've already done them in Colorado. Guns, healthcare, climate change — you can go down the list.

True. But there are people who are arguing that since you're electable and have name recognition in Colorado, it might be better for the Democratic Party — and by extension the country  for you to run for the Senate versus running for president, which could help end [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell's  grip on power.

Luckily, there are three incredible — or more than three, there are now, I think, six — very talented candidates running for the Senate seat in Colorado. [There are roughly a dozen.] And I fully expect we're going to defeat Mitch McConnell.

Hell, my experience has been as an executive. I'm the only person actually running who has run a business, a city and a state. And while that experience is valuable in many places, I think it's especially valuable when you start looking at what it would take to beat Donald Trump in the small towns and suburbs, where he was able to get Barack Obama-type voters. I think my background is probably uniquely suited for that kind of political success.

The question, though, involves ideology, because you have been very vocal in criticizing what you have described as the socialist wing of the Democratic party. Do you believe that a socialist president would be better than Donald Trump?

Well, I think that what we've done in Colorado — again and again — is we've been able to bring people together and do the big progressive things that Washington failed to deliver. And I think that's success. In Colorado, we passed universal background checks. We've got the universal healthcare . . .

I don't mean to interject, but my question was: You've been critical of Democrats who have identified as socialist or have supported programs like the Green New Deal. Let's say a Democrat like that was to win the nomination. Do you believe that Democrat would be better as president than Donald Trump?

Well, to be very blunt, I think almost anyone would be better than Donald Trump as president. But I do think that if you laser focus on things like climate change that — I think we can actually in the next 10 or 12 years dramatically turn the tables on the kind of downward shifts we've been experiencing for decades. And I think we have the tools. And if we get everybody to work together, we've got the tools with which to really address climate change in a meaningful way in the short-term. In other words, begin to have substantial results in the next ten to 12 years. I think that's where we should be ready to focus.

I suppose the question from people who are to the left of you in this race would be: If they could achieve similarly substantive results but do so to implement more left-wing policies than the ones which you would implement as president, would that not be ideal? I suppose what it really comes down to is: Why is your version of progressivism preferable to the democratic socialist alternatives being propounded by Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a congressperson, who is also a social advocate?

Sure. I think Bernie Sanders — I think — I give so much credit for bringing clarity to many of the most important issues facing America in 2016. He really helped deliver that clarity that all of us are discussing right now. But I look at — again, I hold up Colorado only because I think how we did it in Colorado could easily scale and would work as a national solution. But we went from being 40th in job creation to being the No. 1 economy. But we also held ourselves to the highest environmental standards, the highest ethical standards — if you look at progressive achievements. We passed universal background checks and limiting magazine capacities in a purple state — we did that. That's pretty progressive. If you look at expanding women's reproductive rights so that every woman in the entire state has access to long-acting, reversible contraception, we reduced unintended pregnancies for teenagers by 54 percent, and we reduced teen abortion rates by 64 percent. Those are progressive results. I don't hold those out as moderate outcomes. Those are pretty powerful. I think — I mean, you tell me.

Well, the reason I asked this is because I remember when I interviewed you in March, you said that you share a majority of perspectives with Ocasio-Cortez but later you wrote in the Washington Post that her Green New Deal sets unachievable goals. So, where do you draw the line between what you think is attainable and what you think is not attainable?

Well, I think that we are generally going to get into more trouble with massive expansions of the federal government. So to promise every American a government job if they want one — that's going to have a hard time getting through Congress, and I think you're going to be held up in the courts.

In terms of climate change, we don't have the time. We have to be, I believe, laser-focused on in-home programs — clearly defined, and again, bringing people together. You know, in Colorado, we were able to do these big things by bringing business and non-profits together with government to be able to bring Democrats, and Republicans and independents to the table. And I think what you end up doing with these big issues like how do you control — How do you get to universal healthcare coverage but also control the inflation of health care? I think that process that we've done demonstrates success. And I think the outcomes we've had are very, very progressive by anybody's measure.

I suppose the question then becomes, are things different in Washington when it comes to the matter of hyper-partisanship? Because the last two Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were both center-left. They did not support what any democratic socialist would consider to be massive expansions of the government. And yet their conservative critics accuse them of precisely that and were quite obstructionist, particularly during Obama's presidencies. Is it possible there is no amount of moderation? There is no amount of being cautious, in terms of being perceived as overly expansive in one's approach, that would placate those particular criticisms from the right?

Well, I think, again, the Democratic Party is a big tent. And that is one of the things I value in the Democratic Party is that there are a lot of perspectives, and we have different opinions on how to create meaningful, permanent progress. I hear the same people criticize President Obama for one aspect or another, but Barack Obama forever changed our health care system. And he's put in place the framework where, in the short term, we can get to universal coverage, and on a longer term, put in place the framework where we can begin to  for the first time in many decades  dial back the incredible inflation rate we've seen in our healthcare costs for better than 40 years.

This is true. But then, during the last six years of his presidency when he no longer controlled both houses of Congress, he wasn't able to get any substantial social legislation or domestic legislation passed. Even stuff that was very middle of the road, like his gun control measures or on issues in which where there was overwhelming consensus among experts, such as his attempts to curb climate change. And so the question is: If someone like Obama, who was working very hard to reach out to the other side and adopt a centrist approach, wasn't able to do so, can any Democrat do so?

Well, I would argue that all the greatest social victories and great achievements in the history of this country were created on the ashes of previous efforts that didn't succeed. And within that I include women's suffrage, civil rights, you go down this long list where many great leaders made huge efforts and created progress, but they weren't as successful. They weren't judged as successful. And yet they built that foundation whereby, eventually, we could continued to move forward.

Just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s arc of the moral universe. I think we all have a right to make sure that we bend that towards truth and justice  towards progress.

How do you plan on standing out from the pack of Democratic candidates?As we discussed in our last interview, you're not doing that well in the polls. You do have a substantive record as governor of Colorado — you've achieved a lot. But it doesn't seem like that meat and potatoes approach to politicking is resonating with voters. They seem to gravitate more toward individual moments that stick in the memory. How do you plan on standing out from the two dozen or so candidates in the race, aside from focusing on your record?

Sure. I think that going from voter to voter in Iowa, New Hampshire and in South Carolina  to be able to really hear people where they are  and, in that process, let them get a sense of who I am and not just what we did in Colorado but how we did it. And I think right now, especially when I'm in Iowa, there are a huge number of people who really haven't been paying attention there  just beginning to pay attention. And my hope is that by laying out not just my record but what are those things that have shaped me as a person and as a leader. Those first four years when I was a governor, we had the worst wildfires in the state's history, the worst flood in the state's history, the worst shooting in the state's history. I went to 34 funerals in that first four years. And, in many ways, that not only changed me, but I learned that you don't just rebuild things the way they were when you suffer great damage. You have to build it better than it was before.

I think in a funny way, that's what we're going to do with Trump. Trump has divided this country. We were already divided, but he has fueled that division at a level that no one could have thought imaginable, even three years ago. I feel that we've got to go back, we've got to rebuild better than we were before. And I think we can do it. I think the experiences that I've had — not just as a governor but as a mayor, as a business owner, an entrepreneur. I've run a business. I've run a city. I've run a state. I think I'm the only candidate that's done that. And I think that resonates with the more pragmatic reality that is the typical Iowan voter. I think they are pragmatic.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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