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Democratic Governors Pitch Pragmatism On Sidelines Of 2020 Presidential Campaign

Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock at a 2016 Western Governors' Association meeting in Coronado, Calif. They are two Democrats considering running for president in 2020 with a message of pragmatism and bipartisan accomplishment.
Gregory Bull
Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock at a 2016 Western Governors' Association meeting in Coronado, Calif. They are two Democrats considering running for president in 2020 with a message of pragmatism and bipartisan accomplishment.

In the final years of John Hickenlooper's time as Colorado governor, the Democrat had a rule about President Trump.

"I didn't let anyone in my office — no one could mention his name, because then we'd talk for 30 or 40 minutes and never get anything done. You could talk about it endlessly," he said.

As Hickenlooper considers a run for the White House, it's clear the former governor is worried the Democratic primary could play out the same way: an endless, circular argument about how terrible the Trump administration is, without much emphasis on what Democratic candidates would do in his place.

"I think it's essential that we beat President Trump, but it's not sufficient," Hickenlooper said.

He is one of several current or former Democratic governors considering a 2020 presidential campaign. Many of them, like Hickenlooper, are positioning themselves as pragmatists willing to cut deals with Republicans in order to achieve results. That's a sharp contrast from many of the high-profile senators who are largely running campaigns centered around resisting and fighting Trump.

In an increasingly crowded primary, the question for Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and others is whether charged-up Democratic voters will opt for governing over grievances.

"I'm optimistic that we can demonstrate that while we may have our differences at times, Republicans and Democrats can work together in Montana to get things done," Bullock pointedly told the Montana Legislature during his State of the State address last week. "And we can do it without ever shutting down a government."

To be clear, neither Bullock nor Hickenlooper are framing themselves as Howard Schultz-style centristsplacing blame for political stalemate on both parties, but rather as Democrats who are able to negotiate.

Hickenlooper points to gun control measures he signed into law and environmental standards capping greenhouse gas emissions at oil and gas-drilling sites, while Bullock regularly steers the conversation toward the Medicaid expansion he ushered through Montana's Republican Legislature.

The former Colorado governor recently visited Iowa and South Carolina and says he'll make a final decision on whether to run next month. Bullock hasn't declared a run either, but he has been much more aggressive in staking out early primary and caucus states.

He was campaigning in Iowa last April and making the rounds on cable news in the days after the 2018 midterms. "We actually, by working hard, got Medicaid expansion passed. Earned income tax credit, record investments in public education," he told MSNBC's Morning Joethat week. "One of the most progressive laws in the country, saying if you're going to spend in our elections, you have to disclose where that money comes from."

And in a political environment where many Democratic voters say their top priority is finding a candidate who can beat Trump, Bullock is quick to point out he won re-election in Montana on the same night Trump carried the state by 20 points.

Bullock's potential campaign recently hit a speed bump, when news broke that a staffer he fired from the Democratic Governors Association for sexual harassment went on to harass more women after taking a new job working for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"Should I have called Mayor de Blasio? Should I have let more people know?" Bullock wrote in a recent Medium post. "Was I naive to think this wouldn't happen again? The answer is yes. I was wrong and naive to think I did enough."

Longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala says a year from the first caucuses, a lot is unclear. But one consistent theme is that Democratic voters want to find a candidate who can win. He sees the appeal of a candidate who can say I've won — and gotten results — in a red or purple state.

"Democrats would surrender or compromise on Medicare-for-all, or Green New Deal, or taxes or anything, if it would guarantee them that a Democrat would replace Donald Trump," Begala said. "So I think this is likely to be a less ideologically-driven primary."

But there's another constant theme from Democratic voters that may clash with the urge for a candidate who can win GOP votes: a deep, lasting anger at President Trump.

Hickenlooper is quick to acknowledge it. "I think there is so much frustration at the national level, and I think President Trump has created this, so that the one way that people can demonstrate quickly and firmly that they are against Trump is to show anger and really lash out — at either President Trump or someone — to demonstrate that they have the same values as the Democratic primary voters. And I understand, I feel that," Hickenlooper said. "But I think there might be a kind of a new silent majority of people that are also going to want to see achievement."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is also visiting early primary states, focusing his potential campaign on climate change. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is considering a run, too.

All these Democratic governors would face an uphill battle in a crowded race dominated early on by national stars like Elizabeth Warren.

While Warren, Harris, Booker and other D.C.-based lawmakers are capturing most of the attention right now, Begala points out that governors have a much better track record at making it to the White House.

"We cover the senators because they're close by and we know them," Begala said. "But if you look at our history, the people we make president tend to be, well, incumbent presidents, current or former vice presidents, Civil War generals — so far only on the Union side — and governors."

As crowded as the 2020 Democratic field may become, there likely won't be any Civil War generals in the mix. So perhaps, Begala argues, it's worth keeping an eye on the governors.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.