Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper responds to questions during a news conference on Wednesday in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)
Opinion writer

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (D) on Thursday held a 2020 presidential campaign kickoff rally in Denver, where he served two terms as mayor. Not normally known for punchy rhetoric, he gave a lively speech — one part criticism of President Trump, another part touting his record and a final part setting out his agenda with a pitch for moderates.

As for Trump, he was unsparing. “Donald Trump is alienating our allies, ripping away our health care, endangering our planet and destroying our democracy,” Hickenlooper said. “The daily insults he hurls range from shocking to unconscionable.” He added: “But it’s more than his tweet storms. Real people are being hurt: He’s closed down the government. Hate crimes are up. He’s forcibly taking kids from their parents. Most people would call that kidnapping.” Look for him to use that line out on the stump.

Hickenlooper then transitioned into an upbeat message about America’s possibilities. “We tally our wins by the number of children who have enough to eat, who feel safe in their homes and in their schools, who have access to the skills for a changing economy.” He continued: “We broadcast America’s values by celebrating those who may not have been born in America — but America was born in them. ... We gauge our standing in the world by the number of allies who trust us and stand with us through the worst of times.” It was refreshing to hear even a mention of foreign policy and a defense of our alliances. And it was here he made the pitch for his candidacy:

I’m running for president because the only way to end the Trump crisis of division is with a leader who knows how to bring people together and get things done.

It’s a strength unique to America, required to solve America’s unique challenges to build a future that every American feels part of.

This isn’t just my vision; it’s my record.

That’s a theme the only other candidate with gubernatorial experience, Jay Inslee of Washington, might use, but it does set Hickenlooper apart from the flock of U.S. senators. His list of accomplishments was, admittedly, impressive: Leading the state through natural disasters (fires and floods), expanding Medicaid, standing up to the National Rifle Association (“We passed universal background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines … in a Western state”), investing in high-quality prekindergarten, developing tough methane regulations and “in just eight years [moving] from 40th in job growth to the No. 1 economy in America.”

After some biography with some evidence of overcoming adversity (his father died when he was a child; he spent two years unemployed), Hickenlooper laid out his agenda — universal health care, rejoining the Paris accords, tax reform (“Everyone has to pay their fair share: We will close the loopholes, end tax cuts for the wealthy, and we will ensure every profitable corporation is carrying their weight”), a green economy, job training, universal broadband, criminal justice reform and voting rights.

None of this was terribly different from what other Democratic candidates are offering, but the messenger and tone certainly were different. Hickenlooper doesn’t paint a Trumpian dystopia, he remains upbeat and he exudes confidence. He also seems intensely normal, if a little nerdy (in a good way!). He presents himself as someone who has had a life outside politics (as a geologist and later a business owner). Moreover, he makes a pitch for moderation or, as he puts it, pragmatism.

He then uttered the best lines of his speech: “I am a dreamer and a doer. And we need both to make real progress. Not just big ideas but making them happen — finding common ground when it seems like there’s nothing there but mountains between us. Being a pragmatist doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to bold ideas; it means knowing how to make them happen.” He ended on a poetic note: “Together, we can turn this winter of division into a season of hope.”

That’s a solid message, if he can effectively deliver it, put meat on the bones of his agenda and find an early state in which he can break through from a cluttered field. Democrats should welcome to the race another candidate with gubernatorial experience, another moderate and another candidate with a solid record.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Eric Holder out, John Hickenlooper in, but who has it all?

Jennifer Rubin: Watch out for the governors in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: The opposite of Trump isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s this guy.

Paul Waldman: Hickenlooper’s entry reveals how moderates fatally misunderstand today’s GOP