As former Gov. John Hickenlooper puts the defibrillator to his gasping presidential campaign, it’s useful to consider how he’s arrived at this low point.

After all, this is the guy The New York Times has lavished with attention for years.

Columnist Frank Bruni wrote a magazine piece about him in 2011 in which Hickenlooper clearly outlined the political philosophy that has brought him to this position of raging irrelevance.

“What a politician needs to be successful here is to not land in the middle of partisan political battles,” he told Bruni.

With that approach, he said, “I think I can be beloved.”

In a competition with a golden retriever maybe, but as a presidential contender in a race against Trump?

The transcript from his ephemeral appearance on the debate stage June 27 with nine unapologetically partisan Democratic opponents demonstrates just how well this strategy is working.

Or not.

Our popular, aw-shucks, devoutly middle-of-the-road governor stood out as bland, eager to please and fearful of power.

Here in Colorado, we always knew he was reluctant to take a stand. On the debate stage, he appeared more than reluctant. It looked like he was terrified that one of the moderators might call on him.

In fairness, he had one juicy applause line when he was asked to comment on the atrocities at the border. “In Colorado, we call that kidnapping,” he said.

But then, having skillfully teed up the audience’s attention, he whiffed it away.

He said he wants to “make sure that ICE is completely reformed” and that they’re “looking at their job in a humanitarian way,” which leads us all to believe that he’s fine with incarceration of desperate people seeking refuge in the U.S. as long as they get clean water and medical care during their indefinite confinement in internment camps.

If he has any ideas for comprehensive immigration reform or dealing with the waves of climate refugees worldwide, he kept them to himself.

Later he was asked about his signature campaign message: socialism is for losers.

He dismissed the Green New Deal as a program to “promise every American a government job.” He bragged that we achieved “near universal health care coverage” in Colorado by working with private insurance companies.

He said the state’s rules on methane capture were a remarkable achievement in climate action and were achieved by collaborating with the oil and gas industry. And he suggested that the state deserved credit for a program that reduced teen pregnancies by 54 percent.

No one challenged this litany of accomplishment because it is mostly irrelevant in the context of the national conversation.

It’s also not exactly true.

The reason the Green New Deal has a jobs component as well as a climate action agenda is the very same reason the Hickenlooper administration did not support efforts to end mining coal in Colorado despite its dramatic and indisputable impact on climate.

It’s because coal miners need jobs. So do oil drillers, fracking crews and dozens of other workers in the dirty energy sector. Without what’s commonly known as a “just transition” strategy, climate action simply won’t happen.

“Near universal health care coverage” is a nice talking point, but if you live in rural Colorado, it’s little more than that. Several Colorado counties have among the highest insurance premiums in the country because people have no choice but to pay what the private insurers demand. Then many policyholders can’t afford care because their deductibles are too high and the free market has failed to provide affordable care in their communities.

Colorado’s methane rules are a good start, but their impact is minor compared to the 425 million tons of carbon dioxide produced from burning all the oil and natural gas extracted in Colorado in 2018 when Hickenlooper, known as Frackenlooper in some quarters, was cozying up with the industry.

And then there’s the program to reduce teen pregnancy, which was truly an awesome accomplishment. Too bad state funding for it was nonexistent for years.

The real credit for this achievement belongs with the courageous folks at the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation, which put up the money to provide long-acting reversible contraceptives across the state in defiance of all the predictable and inevitable political blowback.

Still, despite his flawed campaign so far, it’s hard not to like John Hickenlooper.

He’s a nice guy. He’s the guy on the debate stage that you’d most want to have a beer with.

If you see him on the sidewalk after the debate, you’ll instinctively want to say, “Really, John, it wasn’t that bad.”

But, alas, it was.

Collaboration and compromise are essential components of governing, but they’re not a campaign platform. Voters need to know where candidates stand before they can trust them to act in their interest.

Otherwise the message in all Hickenlooper’s squishy neutrality is that everything is negotiable, nothing is worth fighting for and when it comes to facing down powerful special interests, we’re on our own.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

This column was provided by the Colorado Sun. The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization that covers people, places and issues of statewide interest. To sign up for free newsletters, subscribe or learn more, visit ColoradoSun.com.

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