DENVER (CBS4) – Before John Hickenlooper launched his presidential bid, he drove to the home of the only Democrat in Colorado who had actually run for president and spent three hours taking notes. Gary Hart, the 1988 Democratic presidential front-runner before he dropped out of the campaign, told CBS4’s Shaun Boyd the former governor and Denver mayor didn’t understand what he was getting into.
“Running for president is not a larger version of running for governor,” Hart told Hickenlooper. “It’s quantitatively and qualitatively different … as different as night and day.”
As Hickenlooper’s campaign flounders, those words are likely haunting him. Earlier this week, several top aides left the campaign. National media have poked fun at him and security at the first Democratic debate mistook him for a reporter. The headline on a Washington Post story read ‘You are who?’ The lonely presidential campaign of John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is polling at or below 1%.
In a political climate where angry bomb throwing candidates suck up all the energy, Hickenlooper comes across as milquetoast. He has tried to carve out a position as the centrist candidate or what he calls the “extreme moderate,” opposing Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. He told the Washington Post the country needs a candidate who can solve the “crisis of division.”
“I believe that not only can I beat Donald Trump, but that I am the person that can bring people together on the other side and actually get stuff done.”
Hart lamented, “Saying you can work with the other side is death to a candidate today.”
He says he tried to warn Hickenlooper that his message should be crafted for party activists.
“Running for a party’s nomination is not like running in the general election,” Hart told Hickenlooper. “The people who pay attention during primary elections are actively engaged and involved, they go to caucuses and believe deeply in the party, not in the abstract, but as a set of principals.”
Hart’s advice seems lost on Hickenlooper, who during the four minutes he was able to talk in the first two hour debate, bragged about his ability to bring about compromise.
“I think we’ve got to recognize that only by bringing people together, businesses, nonprofits — and we can’t demonize every business. We’ve got to bring them together to be part of this thing. Because ultimately, if we’re not able to do that we will be doomed to failure. We have no way of doing this without bringing everyone together.”
It was a message that fell flat in a party that is what Hart calls “cause-oriented.” He says the Democratic party is a coalition party and the coalition has changed.
“It was labor and then social revolution and now it’s the party of environmentalists, feminists and disaffected minorities.”
Hart says many Democrats don’t join the party because of what it stands for, they dictate to the party what it’s stance should be. Hickenlooper is also challenged by what Hart calls “generational politics.”
“There’s comes a time when unconsciously people want new leadership. There is a groundswell to skip a generation when a party at the grassroots level is not only looking for a candidate who supports their agenda but someone new who has charisma.”
Hickenlooper’s mild demeanor is not exactly charismatic. A columnist in New Hampshire compared the former brewpub owner to “a fledgling IPA fighting for a tap in the neighborhood bar.”
Hart says in addition to generational politics, Democrats’ litmus test for a nominee today is broad.
“Party activists are also trying to figure out who can beat Trump, who has the broadest appeal, whether they should nominate a woman for a change and what about the age?”
Hart says Hickenlooper even struggles with how the job of president differs from that of governor. When Hart asked Hickenlooper what his campaign theme would be, he says Hickenlooper replied, “Small business.”
The former governor has come under increasing pressure, even from his own campaign staff, to run for U.S. Senate instead against Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner. Hickenlooper said “I don’t think that’s my calling.”
Hart, who represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate from 1975-1987, seems to agree.
“The unhappiest people I served with in the Senate were former governors. They were used to picking up the phone and telling people what to do.”
Even if Hickenlooper drops out of the presidential race after the next debate (scheduled for July 30 and 31), it is unclear if his image will be too damaged to run for Senate or if he is too centrist even for Colorado Democrats. Hart wouldn’t comment on what Hickenlooper’s next move should be.
“As a Coloradan and friend, I wish Governor Hickenlooper and his state colleague Sen. Michael Bennet well in one of the hardest tasks anyone can undertake. It requires strength and commitment, but mostly courage.”