As far as Democratic presidential candidates go, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper wasn’t the worst. He argued against socialism here and there and intermittently expressed the now-controversial opinion that businesses are not the enemy of the American people. His generally amiable personality was probably among the worst matches with the perpetually angry and combative Twitter Left. He’s a bit of a weirdo, for both good and ill; no phony or carefully-stage-managed politician would ever discuss taking his mother to see Deep Throat.
But the moment Joe Biden demonstrated he could have a lousy debate and still keep most of his lead, it was clear that the former vice president held a strong lead in the “centrist” lane for the Democratic nomination, leaving little daylight for Hickenlooper. Now Hickenlooper has spared us a few more weeks of that “oh, yeah, that guy, I forgot he was running” fleeting recognition that Tim Ryan, Jay Inslee, Michael Bennet, and Seth Moulton will subject upon us for the foreseeable future. Democrats now desperately want Hickenlooper to run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, concluding he would make a strong challenger against incumbent Republican Cory Gardner.
If running for president turns into a good way to build up name recognition or a national fundraising network for a Senate bid, then we will see a lot more politicians follow the Hickenlooper pattern: announce a long-shot bid, tour Iowa and New Hampshire, do some television interviews, hope to qualify for a debate or two and then, if nothing pans out, drop down to the Senate race.
If we want fewer long-shot and no-hope presidential candidates clogging up the debate stages and polling questions in future cycles, then running for president and getting almost no support has to become more painful. (Not physically, although it’s no doubt physically taxing.) If you want to run for Senate, run for Senate. If you want to run for president, accomplish enough in your life before you start running so that Americans beyond political junkies have heard of you. Once you’re running, have an actual plan to attract votes beyond, “once Americans hear my message, they’ll gravitate to me.” Because when a lot of candidates are running, nobody’s going to hear your message, and your message probably isn’t nearly as unique and compelling as you think it is.
Presidential campaigns are not supposed to be shortcuts to becoming a political celebrity. We’re trying to pick a commander-in-chief here, not auditioning cable news prime time hosts. And a presidential campaign should not be seen as training wheels for running for Senate; it’s bad enough that an unsuccessful Senate campaign can turn you into a presidential candidate, as with Beto O’Rourke.