The Washington Post’s Dave Wiegel reports via the Denver Post on an undeniably profile-raising appearance this weekend by former Gov. John Hickenlooper before California Democrats–although whether Hick’s profile was raised positively or negatively is up for considerable debate today:
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper found a way to stand out at a crowded gathering of California Democrats: He denounced “socialism,” and got booed.
“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” Hickenlooper said at a Saturday afternoon session of the state party’s annual convention. As the jeering grew louder, Hickenlooper added: “You know, if we’re not careful, we’re going to end up reelecting the worst president in American history.”
Watching the clip above, you can see that Hickenlooper wasn’t just booed, but booed into submission by irate California Democrats who more or less refused to let him speak after the words “socialism is not the answer” passed his lips. In an interview afterward, Hickenlooper explained what he was (albeit clumsily) getting at:
…In an interview, Hickenlooper said he had spoken “inartfully,” and that he did not mean to single out any of his opponents, though Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is the only self-identified “democratic socialist” seeking the White House.
“We’ve got to clearly show that we reject socialism,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve got to do that because Republicans will try to make us into socialists even if we’re not. If we’re not willing to draw a bright line and say we’re not socialists, we could quite possibly reelect this president.”
“Socialism” is a term that has almost always been used pejoratively in American politics, with anything identifying thusly marginalized in the public eye by the Red Scare and the McCarthyist purge a generation later. “Socialism” has been more recently rehabilitated and even championed by representatives of safely left constituencies like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who argue that the term has been abused and accurately applies to bipartisan American institutions like Social Security and Medicare. For decades, Republican message masters have worked to define “socialism” in the mold of totalitarian communism–an extreme meant to frighten Americans out of rational consideration of such things as universal health care and economic regulation of any kind.
Into this overheated rhetorical space steps our own former Gov. Hickenlooper, who in his eight years in office tried hard and often thanklessly to advance “progressive goals” without pitched ideological battles. Hickenlooper certainly has his issue blind spots, though overall his platform is one that a large percentage of Democrats nationally could support. But he doesn’t call his agenda “socialism,” and he thinks the term is politically repellent.
In Colorado, he’s…if not right then more right than wrong. The problem for Hickenlooper is that by waging war on the word “socialism,” he’s giving into the frame of Republicans who agree that the word is politically toxic and extend that toxicity to the Democratic agenda as a whole. Instead of railing against a word in front of a crowd who definitely doesn’t agree with his connotations of the word, Hickenlooper would do much better to remind prospective voters that what the right falsely demonizes as “socialism” today are the institutions we all depend on–and what Hickenlooper himself supported as governor.
It’s possible that this exposure will have an inverse effect from the boos of California Democrats, and increase Hickenlooper’s profile at a time when he can surely use it. But unless he can follow this up with a unifying principle that transcends any one word and its many tortured definitions, a valuable opportunity to make the case we think Hickenlooper wants to make in this presidential campaign is being lost.