Who needs a governor anyway?

(Denver Post, Feb. 26) “An empty taxi drove up to 10 Downing Street,” joked Winston Churchill about the man who defeated him for prime minister in 1946, “and out of it stepped Clement Attlee.” Droll, but Attlee laughed last. Nothing succeeds like success.

Detractors who grumble that there is “no there, there” in John Hickenlooper’s remarkable political winning streak, have to admit the same thing about his long-running popularity as Mayor of Denver and now Governor of Colorado: voters just like the guy.

The latest indication of Hick’s undiminished moxie was an odd little news item the other day, in which Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican, hinted at a 2014 gubernatorial bid – but only if Hickenlooper, the Democratic incumbent, were to decline a second term as did his predecessor, Bill Ritter. To which the Gov’s office replied, in substance, fat chance.

The upcoming TBD Project, 120 townhall meetings around the state with private funding of $1.2 million, shows again how Hickenlooper has raised amiable vagueness to an art form. He says TBD stands for “To Be Determined,” an open invitation for citizens to help set the state’s priorities – and bristles at the GOP gibe that it’s really code for “Taxed by Democrats.” The very idea!

Cruising toward halftime in his four-year term, the canny Hick is still not ready to roll out an agenda. No hurry, we’ll just travel the counties and see what folks scribble on our whiteboard. If Christo can take till 2015 to drape the river, the administration’s big push on education, transportation, corrections, and fiscal reform needn’t start yet either. Get reelected, then get serious.

On what record, you ask, would the governor campaign, given his underwhelming accomplishments to date? That’s the interesting thing about being Colorado’s chief executive. Constitutionally the position is so weak – the executive branch being split among four elected offices, the legislative branch having dominance on spending, and the voters controlling taxes and debt under TABOR – that an incumbent can win again just by managing the atmospherics and avoiding blunders.

It worked exactly this way for all of the successful governors in the state’s modern era (since terms went from two years to four in 1962). The Republican John Love and the Democrats Dick Lamm and Roy Romer each won three terms. Republican Bill Owens was easily reelected once and then term-limited. Democrat Bill Ritter, dogged by scandal and done after one, is the exception who proves the rule.

Don’t misunderstand: Love, Lamm, Romer, and Owens were all surehanded leaders and formidably skilled politicians. (Gov. Romer, of course, trounced me in our 1990 contest.) I’m merely saying that if you look for their monumental legacies or enduring policy victories, there weren’t many.

Romer did get DIA built, though Mayor Federico Pena’s name is on the approach road, and he passed the CSAP legislation, though education is little the better for it. Owens pushed T-REX to completion, though congestion persists, and he signed voucher legislation, though judges then annulled it. Lamm ran off the Winter Olympics – though before he became governor – and now we may host them anyway.

Governing our state or any other state simply doesn’t lend itself to transformative Obama-style grandiosity – which from my conservative viewpoint is a good thing. The Hippocratic caution in public policy, “First do no harm,” is hard enough to uphold. Deliver that and we’re grateful, would be the sentiment of most Americans in what is still a center-right nation.

Today’s superstar governors elsewhere – Chris Christie in New Jersey, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana – became such by tackling Augean messes, not by peddling utopian dreams. Colorado, for all its problems, is in no such crisis, thank goodness. If the empty gimmickry of John “TBD” Hickenlooper has an upside, that’s it.

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