WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — As the first wave of Democratic presidential candidates unveil plans for taxing wealth and universal government-provided health care, John Hickenlooper is making a narrower pitch of beer and bipartisanship.
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The brewpub magnate and former Colorado governor recently swung through the early voting state of Iowa to test his theory that Democratic voters are less interested in a resistance champion than someone with a record of achieving liberal goals even with divided government.
“My whole public life is about bringing people together who are feuding and can’t stand each other,” Hickenlooper told a crowded house party.
It’s a pitch that’s part of a broader debate this week over how far Democrats should go to appeal to the base during the primary season.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he’s flirting with an independent presidential campaign that would motivate voters turned off by both parties. On Tuesday, he joined fellow billionaire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s considering a Democratic presidential run, in criticizing a Democratic proposal to raise taxes on top earners. Bloomberg also blasted Democrats who are talking about replacing private health insurance with Medicare for all Americans, an emerging litmus test among liberals.
The pushback comes as the spotlight has focused so far on the Democrats — mostly senators — who have already entered the 2020 field and have focused on courting liberals. They include Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose proposed 2 percent tax on households with net worth greater than $50 million Bloomberg derided as Venezuelan-style socialism. Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris of California told a CNN town hall that she wanted to eliminate private health insurance and replace it with Medicare. Several other senators with similar views may soon enter the race, among them New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and liberal icon Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Trying to finesse the ideological battles and present themselves as can-do executives is a second tier of governors and mayors mulling bids. The list includes governors like Steve Bullock of Montana and Jay Inslee of Washington and mayors like Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. They are trying to emerge from the shadows cast by the senators’ national profile, as is Hickenlooper, whose visit to a house party in suburban Des Moines was overshadowed by Harris’ launch of her campaign before tens of thousands of supporters in Oakland, California.
Ben Tulchin, a pollster who worked for Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, said Democratic voters don’t want compromise. “The challenge with saying ‘I’ll work on bipartisanship’ — on what issue? Because the two parties are at such a stark contrast,” Tulchin said. “I don’t see how you gain any traction or win the nomination with a party that’s more liberal than it has ever been.”
A Gallup survey this month found that 51 percent of Democrats identify as liberal — the highest percentage on record. But last month, Gallup found that 54 percent of Democrats want their party to be more moderate, while 41 percent want it to move left.
Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster, said a more pragmatic primary bid wasn’t a bad idea. “There’s no question the greater energy is on the left in the party,” Mellman said. “But if there are 20 people fighting over the left and you’re fighting over the center, the person fighting over the center can win.”
That’s what Hickenlooper is betting on. During his brief Iowa swing, he tried to sidestep ideological debates and described himself as a progressive who gets things done. He recounted how, as Denver mayor, he led a coalition of Democratic and Republican mayors of surrounding suburbs to support a sales tax increase to fund an expansion of regional light rail. As governor, he hammered out the nation’s first limits on methane emissions from energy exploration during tough negotiations between environmentalists and oil and gas firms.
But for all his talk of bipartisanship and moderation, Hickenlooper can’t ignore core Democratic principles. The mild-mannered and genial former governor began his remarks at the house party by saying he was “over-the-top angry about what’s happened to the country in such a short period of time.” He said he’d never run with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich — they teamed up to fight the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — because of their disagreements on many other issues. “The guy doesn’t support Planned Parenthood,” Hickenlooper said.
He’s clashed with the GOP on expanding background checks for gun purchases. In response to one question about health care, Hickenlooper showed how he’d try to sidestep some of the Democratic divisions in the primary. He said the party’s goal is universal coverage and that Democrats should focus on getting there rather than on battles over single-payer health care. “Instead of fighting over that, let’s get to the grail,” he said.
Bill Brauch, a 67-year-old lawyer, was impressed with Hickenlooper — but not necessarily with his sweeping message of cooperation. “Barack Obama found out that trying to work together in this particular climate with the right wing in control of the Republican Party is a losing proposition,” Brauch said. “We simply have to have a stronger, more progressive federal government across the board.”
As Hickenlooper made the rounds at the Court Avenue Brewing Co., a brown ale in hand, Dan Herron, a 50-year-old financial planner, stopped him. “What’s your plan to get through the contest of who hates Trump more?” Herron asked.
“What people are going to look for is people who have a consistent, long-term record of bringing people together,” Hickenlooper replied before launching into the barstool-length summary of his record.
Herron and his friend Kasey Kincaid, who is the former chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party, were intrigued.
“It’s a very positive message,” Kincaid said. “There are more people, like Dan and myself, who are looking for someone with a record of solving problems.”
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