Hickenlooper’s stumble leaves manufacturing in search of a Democratic messenger

By Bart Taylor | Apr 29, 2019

For Democrats running for president and struggling to find a cogent economic vision for the country, America's manufacturing renaissance holds promise.

Sure, you say.

But consider this: More than anytime in the 2000s manufacturing's appeal stretches east and west -- from rust belt to farm belt to Silicon Valley. It spans key industries, leverages America's global-leading R&D ecosystem, and is often the face of generational businesses, of rural and urban economies, and of U.S. grit. Today it's also a young person's game: Made in the U.S. inspires a new generation of entrepreneurs.

There's also a Democrat running for president who has helped shape its new visage, its modern iteration, a candidate well-positioned to be the face of America's new industrial character and aspirations, from the progressive economies of the West to the Rust Belt.

John Hickenlooper was a craft-brewing pioneer. He helped reimagine craft manufacturing in Colorado and make it fashionable again, demonstrating its power to reshape urban economies, create opportunities for passionate entrepreneurs and reshape entire industry sectors. His pioneering led to two successful terms as governor and the potential to ground a national campaign in the language of business and industry -- unique for Democrats. I envisioned talk of the virtues of shortening supply chains to bring jobs home, of providing pathways for families and kids into the trade, and of a new economy where U.S.-engineered and -designed products are increasingly made here.

Yet the promise of becoming a fresh new face of American industry, and a Democrat at that, has been lost to trip-ups over basic questions about capitalism and GDP. For those of us who appreciate Hickenlooper's business chops, it's been baffling to watch.

It's possible the governor overcomes missed opportunities and channels his past to grab hold of the economic dialogue. The stakes seem obvious enough. For aspiring presidents, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin are pivotal states. They're also states with abiding manufacturing legacies, where voters are likely dubious that tariffs and tax cuts represent a new and compelling industrial strategy. Hickenlooper had the inside track on a new vision for American capitalism.

Can other Democrats find the message? California is a poster child for America's new manufacturing model if Kamala Harris looks for inspiration from her home state. Joe Biden need only travel west for stops in Portland or Fort Collins to witness manufacturing sectors changing local economies, to more assiduously connect the dots with Pennsylvania's industrial legacy. Pete Buttigieg hails from Indiana, a state not shy from bragging about its manufacturing chops.

Beto O'Rourke's Texas also boasts a recovering manufacturing economy, though I read today that Beto's latest policy proposal involves $5 trillion to fight climate change, the latest add to a list of Democratic proposals to spend money if not make it.

A plan is there. Manufacturing's involved. Who'll rise to the occassion?

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.