Paul Nitze: We need a messenger
August 25, 2010
Turns out that our future governor, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, was taken to task for poor management of his brew pub empire back in 1998. As reported by The Denver Post, some members of the Wynkoop Brewing Co. sought to remove Hickenlooper from day-to-day management of the chain in the fall of 1998. Among other concerns, Hickenlooper wasn’t acting quickly to cash them out of their investment. Red ink was piling up in the meantime.
This isn’t news, having been reported way back when Hick first ran for mayor of Denver, but it’s a fair line of inquiry. Top of the list of qualifications the mayor is fronting during his fall coronation is his experience as a proverbial “small businessman.” And unlike many pretenders to that title, he has in fact run a successful small business. So evidence that some of his investors wanted to boot him is useful in assessing that claim.
Where it’s less useful, to my mind, is helping voters decide whether he’ll make a decent governor. I’d go even farther and say it has zero predictive value. Same applies to the other names on Colorado ballots. You’d think otherwise, given the farcical lengths to which career public servants Jane Norton and Ken Buck went in padding their business experience during the GOP Senate primary.
Someone is advising candidates for both parties that successful business experience is the secret sauce of an election cycle in which the economy is top of mind. This is especially true on the Republican side, where slogans like “I’ve balanced budgets before, and I’ll do it again” play well to the crowds. But if business experience is what the voters are after, why do those same voters rate Ronald Reagan the best president since World War II?
A former actor, Reagan was the first to admit that his understanding of economic theory was pretty thin. His diaries do not reveal a love for budget meetings. But he sure was good at economic sloganeering. He knew what he hated, namely taxes and regulation, and he never wavered from attacking them. His simple message produced big results – the 1986 Tax Reform Act was the last major tax simplification bill, and a legislative triumph.
This success wasn’t lost on then-candidate Barack Obama, who was jeered for saying that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” in a way that Bill Clinton, among others, did not. Much as he had done for General Electric when he was their spokesman in the 1960s, Reagan had a silver tongue and a basic set of convictions that made him enormously persuasive. When Obama praised Reagan, it was one rhetorical wizard tipping his cap to another.
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As we judge Mayor Hickenlooper’s fitness for turning Colorado’s economy around, the skill set we should look for is Reagan’s. And by that measure, Hickenlooper does pretty well. When he started the Wynkoop Brewery in 1988, Hick’s major challenge wasn’t balancing the books; it was convincing people to drink beer in a part of Denver known for crime and grime. His major private-sector legacy is transforming a gritty part of Denver by force of personality, not making money for himself and his investors. The fact that he had more fun as a beer-guzzling frontman than as a bean counter isn’t such a bad thing.
When he walks into the state capitol as governor-elect, as he surely will next January, Hick will inherit a bleak budget forecast. Gov. Ritter has sliced more than $4 billion from the state budget over the last three cycles. With federal stimulus dollars a fading memory, the 2010-11 budget will be ugly.
Gov. Hickenlooper will not only have to fill a budget hole sure to exceed, under the best circumstances, $1 billion – he’ll also have to deal with the expiration of Referendum C, our holiday from TABOR’s ratchet provision. Ref C has pumped $3.6 billion into public coffers that otherwise would have been refunded.
At all levels of government, Americans are experiencing a hangover from conservative rhetoric on economic policy. That’s the rhetoric that led us to expect more and better government from lower tax rates, all while we blindly deregulated big chunks of the American economy. It’s the rhetoric that has led to a towering federal deficit, and the rhetoric that has been decisively rejected by the old Reagan economic team, among them part-time Aspenite David Stockman.
What’s needed from John Hickenlooper and other leaders coming up through the ranks isn’t business experience, not that I discount the value of earning buck. It’s the rhetorical flair to sell some extremely nasty economic medicine to voters. Unlike Reagan, who could wax about “morning in America,” today’s leaders have to sell at least a temporary twilight in America, a lean period during which spending cuts will go hand in hand with tax increases. It can be done – if you doubt me look to former pitchman David Cameron’s success in the U.K. – but it will require tremendous persuasion.
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