The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The opposite of Trump isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s this guy.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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His presidency is defined by self-absorption, fondness for authoritarians, contempt for democracy and an erratic personality. To the extent that President Trump has any animating ideology, he seems enamored of a mishmash of conflicting impulses —  robber-baron economics (e.g. freezing government workers’ salaries to pay for capital gains cuts), uninformed protectionism, crude xenophobia and pro-autocrat sympathies. If one were to look for his perfect opposite, it would not be someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who fancies himself as a disrupter of the status quo (including capitalism); it would be someone like Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper.

“Who?” you say. Hickenlooper is a former geologist (pro-science and pro-fracking); former Denver mayor and two-term governor; a policy wonk (he teamed up with Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, to try to fashion a bipartisan health-care approach); an implementor of pot legalization (think of him as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s worst nightmare); and a dogged supporter of “dreamers” and broad immigration reform. Following the mass murder at an Aurora movie theater in 2012, he also became an advocate of strict gun laws, earning him an F grade from the National Rifle Association.

You might be hearing more from and about Hickenlooper, who reportedly is seriously considering — along with about two dozen other Democrats — a presidential run in 2020.

While his policy outlook and governing style (e.g. attention to detail, bridge-building) starkly contrast with Trump’s, it’s Hickenlooper’s personality that marks him as among the most un-Trumpian politicians out there. In a 2014 Governing magazine article, a Colorado political guru described him as a “let’s-work-this-out, let’s-split-the-difference, let’s-find-consensus kind of leader.” The article explained:

Hickenlooper remains very popular among Colorado’s business community. He’s also a guy you almost can’t help liking. He’s affable and mellow, with an endearing “aw shucks” demeanor and an undeniable cool factor. (Ask him about going to Woodstock, or the Fourth of July weekend he spent at Kurt Vonnegut’s house.) At the Boulder happy hour, one person toasts Hickenlooper for installing a kegerator in the governor’s mansion. Hick grabs the microphone and corrects the record: He installed a full draft system. His quirky personality has always driven his campaigns — his television ads have famously included one spot in which he explained a complicated fiscal measure while skydiving from a plane, and another in which he showered fully dressed while promising to run a “clean” campaign. …
For Hickenlooper, even getting him to define himself politically takes a bit of arm-twisting. “I guess I’m a centrist?” he says tentatively when asked about his politics. “A moderate? You know, all those words …” he trails off, suggesting that he’s not entirely comfortable even picking his own label. “I like politics, but I’m kind of apartisan.”

He won reelection in 2014 by 3 percentage points.

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Conventional wisdom says a moderate (and a white male) isn’t going to win the 2020 Democratic nomination. But keep a few things in mind. First, if the progressive lane in the primaries is crowded, a moderate might have a path forward — especially in open primaries. Someone who can consolidate even a quarter of the vote would certainly be in the thick of things. Second, if the GOP is still in Trump’s grasp, Hickenlooper is precisely the kind of moderate, pro-business Democrat who might attract disaffected Republicans. If enough anti-Trump Republicans cross over in open primaries or re-register as Democrats, Hickenlooper would go a long way toward reorienting both parties. Third, Hickenlooper as mayor of Denver and then governor of a diverse state actually accomplished some goals that progressives share (e.g. gun legislation, pot legalization). That might contrast favorably with a whole crop of junior senators whose “achievements” are limited to asking aggressive questions at Senate hearings.

In short, if most every president is a reaction to his predecessor, Hickenlooper might stand a chance. The country might be ready for a moderate, unassuming, reality-based leader.