Antiques roadshow: John Hickenlooper and John Kasich’s sad, lonely weekend in Washington

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Why Hickenlooper and Kasich’s bipartisan healthcare “blueprint” is doomed to irrelevance

When President Donald Trump took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just after 10 am on Friday in Washington D.C., the crowd went wild. The convention hall — packed with the gathering’s usual cross-section of gold-peddling media charlatans, snot-nosed College Republicans, and far-right politicians from across the country and the globe — broke into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” The president delivered a wandering, hour-long speech that reached a crescendo with his recitation of a poem likening immigrants to murderous snakes, and then he walked off to another rockstar’s ovation.

At the very same moment, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was a few miles away at the National Press Club, unveiling the “Bipartisan Governors Blueprint for Healthcare” to a room of not quite a dozen reporters.

The “blueprint,” a collaboration between Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, is a seven-page document of health care principles and vague policy recommendations that has no future in Congress to speak of. When asked a simple question about the plan’s cost, Hickenlooper calmly explained that there is no cost, because there’s not really a plan.

“We haven’t made specific projections,” Hickenlooper said. “The point with all these recommendations is — they are directions that we can agree to in a bipartisan way that allows us to, you know, at least contemplate getting our arms around the runaway inflation we’ve had for thirty, forty years.”

If all of this sounds like a sad, irrelevant exercise in performative bipartisanship, that’s because it was. And since no words can do it justice, here, courtesy of C-SPAN, is a picture:

Hickenlooper and Kasich, both in town for a meeting of the National Governors Association, spent the rest of their brief weekend press tour encountering similar levels of polite indifference. In a five-minute joint appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, their health care proposal didn’t even come up.

No doubt the governors’ fans, if you could find any, would say that the contrast between their events and the madness at CPAC was a flattering one — a pair of problem-solving, no-nonsense state executives doing the quiet work of governance while the circus performed across town. In the narrowest possible sense, they’d be right.

But the howling hordes of CPAC are here to stay — they control all three branches of the federal government and thirty-odd states — and if the last year has made anything clear, it’s that they can’t be compromised with. They’re going to have to be defeated, and few things are less suited to the task than Hickenlooper and Kasich’s milquetoast centrism.

A ruling party that is targeting American immigrants with a radical campaign of deportation and demagoguery requires an opposition that is equally zealous in defending those immigrants’ rights and livelihoods. A movement that would happily turn elementary schools into militarized compounds filled with gun-toting teachers deserves an opposition that is unafraid to advance a full assault-weapons ban and other highly popular gun reforms.

And a congressional majority determined to eradicate the last remaining tatters of the safety net must be met with an unconditional defense of its moral necessity — not by signaling openness, as Hickenlooper did at Friday’s press conference, to establishing work requirements for Medicaid.

Hickenlooper and Kasich were asked repeatedly over the weekend about the possibility of forming a 2020 presidential unity ticket, rumors of which were first circulated last year. Both downplayed the likelihood of such a ticket, and in Hickenlooper’s noncommittal responses to questions about his own presidential ambitions, it was possible to hear his recognition of the obvious: an arch-moderate doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning the Democratic nomination in two years, and for good reason.

For now, Hickenlooper returns home to a state where the race to become his successor is shifting into high gear, with next week’s precinct caucuses set to begin narrowing down the field of gubernatorial hopefuls ahead of primary elections in June.

It remains a good bet that Hickenlooper will hand over the keys to the governor’s mansion to a fellow Democrat next January. But at the moment, a conspicuous number of the accolades for Hickenlooper’s two terms in office on the campaign trail are coming not from his own party, but from across the aisle.

In some of the most damning praise imaginable, Republican candidates for governor can be heard hailing Trump’s accomplishments in one breath — and applauding Hickenlooper for his “centrist” governing style in the next.

“There’s no one in [the Democratic primary] in the model of Gov. Hickenlooper,” said Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, at a luncheon earlier this month. “They are all very much to the left.”