Jared Polis is running for president.
He’ll deny it. He has denied it.
But in the last month or so, the Colorado governor’s publicity people have been busy. Polis has written an op-ed in the Washington Post defending charter schools. Libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie recorded a glowing podcast profile for Reason. There was a holiday weekend puff piece in The Hill. And recently, the Wall Street Journal praised Polis for standing up to the climate lobby.
All of these pieces have one aim: to make the progressive Democratic governor look as though he’s not all that progressive—indeed, maybe he’s a moderate or even a liberal with libertarian leanings, who’ll keep the government off your back. I frequently hear out-of-state conservatives, hopeful for someone to pull the Democrats back from their current woke insanity, offer this description as their impression of Polis.
Those of us who’ve seen his governance here in Colorado up close and personal know better.
Consider Polis’ support for charter schools. He comes by that honestly, and is featured on the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) page as a champion of school reform. But the delegates who put Polis on the primary ballot for governor in 2018 told the state chapter of DFER to stop using the word “Democrats” in their name, effectively booting the organization out of the party. Since then, Polis has done little to nothing to ruffle the feathers of the teachers’ unions, or to welcome the group back into the state party.
Reason may ask whether Polis is “the most libertarian governor in America,” but libertarianism doesn’t mean standing aside and letting municipalities do your dirty work for you. Polis let Denver Mayor Michael Hancock lead on coronavirus lockdowns and masks before imposing a statewide lockdown himself. Polis also signed a bill allowing cities and counties to enact stricter (but not looser) gun regulations than the state imposes. And there’s nothing particularly libertarian about opening the door to public employees’ unions in a traditionally non-union state like Colorado.
As for standing up to the climate lobby, Polis is the climate lobby. The Journal editorial board praises him for vetoing a new requirement to include electric vehicle charging points in new residential buildings. But in the same session, Polis signed a bill to require updated municipal building codes that have added up to $70,000 to the cost of new homes in towns where they have been implemented. And he did this in a state with one of the most unaffordable metropolitan areas for housing in the entire country.
For all he talks in The Hill of not telling people what to do, Polis is a champion at telling people what to do. In addition to his home in Boulder, he owns a vacation house in rural Weld County. When a neighbor put up a fracking well, Polis bankrolled a statewide initiative imposing a 2,000-ft. setback for new drilling. And when voters decisively rejected that initiative at the polls, he worked with the legislature to pass similar legislation, anyway.
So what’s the presidential play for someone who doesn’t even show up on the PredictIt roster of potential 2024 Democratic nominees? Polis hopes to be reelected as governor by a comfortable margin, which would likely make him an outlier in this fall’s expected Democratic bloodbath. With progressives doing well in Democratic primaries, they’ll be the obvious scapegoats.
There’s still the matter of the incumbent president. Primarying a sitting president running for reelection has traditionally been a route to disaster, either for the challenger if the challenge is weak, or for the party if the challenge is strong. Joe Biden has reportedly been telling people he’ll run again, but as speculation about possible alternatives grows, the party powers that be are giving the green light for alternatives to step forward.
Polis’ comfortable reelection—if all goes according to plan—in a Republican year, in a state that continues its trend towards blue dominance, would combine with a non-threatening persona and a general impression that he has some libertarian or even conservative leanings, to make him very interesting to Democrats desperately looking for a viable general election candidate.
Republicans should take little comfort in the fact that Polis doesn’t yet have much of a national profile. He was one of the original architects of the Colorado Blueprint that turned the state from solid red to increasingly solid blue, starting in 2004. He’s a clever politician, mostly letting others advance the progressive agenda, occasionally pushing back at the edges, almost always from the left, to give the impression of being a centrist.
Increasingly, 2024 is looking like a Republican year, with even the potential for a realignment that produces a durable Republican majority. However, there are ways conservatives can blow this generational opportunity. One is by playing along with a dangerous mythology defined by their opponents.
Joshua Sharf is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. A version of this article originally appeared in Newsweek.
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