Back in April 2010, we wrote a short post that pointed to this photo as the prime reason why Republicans had no chance at winning the race for Governor in 2010. Then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was just so much more interesting and charismatic than anyone the GOP could muster. As we wrote at the time:
As much as we all like to pretend that elections are about issues, they really aren't that way anymore (if they ever were). In today's media climate, elections are popularity contests, first and foremost, and Republicans like Scott McInnis and Dan Maes are just never going to be more likable than Hickenlooper.
There are few politicians in Colorado who could pull of this bicycle basketball maneuver and make it look genuine, rather than the folksy publicity stunt that it is. Think about it — who else could do this and not come across as completely fake?
There's no denying the success of Hickenlooper's carefully-crafted image as a quirky, nerdy guy who once owned a brewery and just wanted everyone to be friends. It got him all the way to the Governor's Mansion, it has him as a virtual lock to win re-election in 2014, and it has even attracted interest from national reporters that Hick could be a candidate for President in 2016. We've never agreed that Hick's political persona would work in a race for "Commander in Chief," but it certainly has his name in the discussion.
As much as the Hick persona has brought him politically, it isn't doing as much to help him in his role of governing. We've seen bits and pieces of the weakness in the facade in the last year, but it was in today's "debate" about fracking with Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones where the routine abandoned him.
As Fox 31 News reports:
Three anti-fracking hecklers were removed from the audience at a public debate Monday after challenging Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper for his support of the oil and gas industry.
“You just give lip service to green energy but you don’t do anything,” said one man in the audience at the 45-minute debate between Hickenlooper and Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, both Democrats, at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
“Look around, green energy is not here. We’re surrounded by oil and gas and it’s killing us,” the heckler yelled before being escorted out…
…The debate before a packed room of DU students, faculty and interested reporters gave increased definition to the growing rift between Hickenlooper, whose rising national profile is that of a popular, western moderate, and the environmentalists within his party’s base who are unhappy with his strong pro-oil and gas industry stance.
For all of his political success, it must be noted that Hickenlooper has never really had to deal with any intense, sustained public opposition since he was first elected Mayor of Denver. There have been spats, sure, but nothing that Hick couldn't easily sidestep before things got sticky…until now. The public outcry against fracking that began 18 months ago continues to grow, and Hickenlooper seems completely lost when it comes to dealing with the issue. Mercifully, he's finally stopped talking about drinking fracking fluid, but only after misinterpreting its impact for the better part of a year.
In today's fracking "debate" at the University of Denver, Hickenlooper tried several times to duck tough questions with his folksy brewer dance, but instead of getting him out of a jam, it just made him look, well, stupid. It wasn't charming. It wasn't cute. But he kept pushing it, all the way up until the end of the debate, when he went one step too far in a poor attempt at a joke that ended up sounding more like an insult. Hickenlooper had been late to the event because of a scheduling issue, and near the end of the debate, the moderator asked if he still had time in his schedule for another question. Hickenlooper shifted and smirked and joked that he didn't know anything about his own schedule, saying he hadn't realized until the night before that the fracking debate was scheduled for Noon. You could tell that he was trying to make some kind of joke about how frazzled and busy he is, but it came off sounding like he just didn't care about the event and didn't want to be there. It was uncomfortable to watch.
The finale wasn't the only time the Hick Schtick failed to save him. On a question about legal issues relating to mineral and land rights holders, Hickenlooper stammered for awhile about how he was a brewer, and not a lawyer, and then he looked down at his notes; when he looked back up, he started talking about an apparently-related court case, the name of which he fumbled, with the effect being that he looked like someone who hadn't bothered to study his notes even though the answer was at his fingertips. He didn't look folksy and agreeable — he looked disorganized and disinterested.
Hickenlooper has always coveted the image of a regular guy who just wants to bring everybody together to hash out a solution, but it takes more than tired jokes to craft effective public policy — even on issues where you think you have some expertise. Hickenlooper was once a geologist, and he carries that background with him to the fracking debate; but in wrapping himself up in his geologist cape, he has misunderstood the issue. This isn't a debate about oil and gas — when drilling is happening in residential neighborhoods and near public schools, the issue is about people. About families and children. He's missing that, somehow, and in his frustration he turns back to the schtick for cover.
When Democrats won back control of the State House in November, many political observers openly wondered how Hickenlooper would handle a Democratic-controlled legislature without the safety net of Republican interference to avoid stating his opposition to any progressive ideas. Thus far Hickenlooper has largely tried to stay out of the way, perhaps gambling that the Hick Schtick can preserve his approval ratings while he leaves the tough decisions to someone else. Fracking has been the one issue in which he has waded in up to his chest, and the schtick has proved a poor safety line.
None of this is to suggest that Hickenlooper is at all vulnerable in 2014. He is going to get re-elected with little trouble, but unless he can re-invent himself in a second term, that will probably be the end of his time in elected office.
You can win elections with a good schtick, as Hick has shown. You can do it more than once. But to continue to win elections, you must govern well — and you can't govern with schtick alone.