John Hickenlooper’s emphatic rejection of the Green New Deal is an obvious — if somewhat risky — attempt to elevate his profile among the gaggle of Democratic candidates running for president. But it may achieve something just as important if it frees the former Colorado governor to talk honestly about his enthusiasm for technological progress and innovative enterprise and the need to nurture both.
This is something he’s actually very good at. And when he indulges this interest, he conveys an optimism that is sorely lacking in so much of the angry rhetoric these days from the Democratic left.
In his Washington Post commentary on the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Hickenlooper identified the fatal flaw as its “unachievable goals. We do not yet have the technology needed to reach ‘net-zero greenhouse gas emissions’ in 10 years.”
Of course we don’t. More notably, however, he also broke ranks with rival Democratic candidates because the Green New Deal shifts away “from private decision-making and toward the public sector,” whereas “most of the gains we have seen in recent years on renewable energy have come from entrepreneurs and companies responding to incentives from the market and the federal government, not bending to federal mandates.”
Hickenlooper is far from a free-market purist, but his respect for private creativity is entirely consistent with what I have observed over the years.
At an editorial board meeting early this decade, for example, Hickenlooper digressed into a detailed description of a manufacturing process he’d recently witnessed that involved (as I recall) cascading spheres and which he considered a triumph of engineering. Nor was that the only time I have seen him go off on the marvels of this or that technology and the companies that create them. In another encounter, it was a new Microsoft smartphone.
For me, this geekish interest has always been one of Hickenlooper’s most attractive traits — his genuine appreciation for the nuts and bolts of unglamorous production and the men and women whose devotion to marginal efficiencies make our world a better place.
Maybe it has to do with his background as a geologist, or as a craft brewer overseeing a complex chemical and manufacturing process.
Indeed, for a while last month he seemed reluctant even to utter the words “capitalist” or “capitalism,” let alone embrace them. In an excruciating exchange with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Hickenlooper dodged repeated questions about whether he would call himself a capitalist, finally allowing that he’d been a “small businessperson” in what he delicately called “that part of the system that you would call capitalist.”
To be sure, for some people the word “capitalist” evokes an image of the profit-squeezing Monopoly man, complete with top hat and bowtie. But like it or not, Calvin Coolidge’s quip that “the chief business of the American people is business” retains a ring of truth nearly a century later. And it is this system that, yes, we call capitalist that produces our remarkable standard of living, still rising, and which has lifted more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty worldwide in the past 25 years alone.
Hickenlooper knows it, too, whatever he may feel compelled to say during the upcoming campaign to placate a party that has drifted sharply to the left. Rival Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who regularly portray corporate America as the enemy of the people may actually believe it — Sanders certainly does — but Hickenlooper could never credibly make such a claim.
Which is a good thing for the Democratic Party. And maybe even for the nation, if Hickenlooper’s campaign can ever find an inside lane.
Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.