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Doing nothing and doing it well

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By Rob Witwer

Every election cycle, candidates come along with slick new ideas for reforming government. But one of the best ideas has been around for centuries: “Govern a great nation,” wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “as you would cook a small fish — do not overdo it.”
The concept of limited government, so elegant and simple, isn’t new. Yet it’s so rare that when we see it, we don’t know what to make of it. The famously reticent Vermonter Calvin Coolidge was mocked in his time, as now, for his lack of grandiloquent pronouncements and a meager federal agenda.
Of Coolidge’s minimal style, historian Walter Lippmann wrote: “This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone … . And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy.”
And that was before the New Deal, the Great Society and the Stimulus.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to note the new narrative emerging about Gov. John Hickenlooper. He is, his critics insist, a “do-nothing” governor. He doesn’t have an agenda. He won’t take positions on controversial issues. Some of this criticism comes predictably from the left, which expects and demands ever-increasing government involvement in so many phases of human endeavor. But, surprisingly, some on the right have joined the chorus.
I don’t understand why those who long for less government would mind that Hickenlooper has chosen to stay his hand. Rather than diving head-long into an activist agenda, much of his energy is expended behind the scenes to streamline and shrink the executive branch. What’s wrong with that?
It’s worth remembering that “doing nothing” also means not raising taxes, not growing government, and not embarking on unsustainable initiatives that feel good but will ultimately amount to nothing. This is a good thing. We should praise it.
This governor is generating no small amount of puzzlement among Republicans. On the one hand, we’re accustomed to supporting GOP candidates and opposing Democrats. On the other, our philosophical inclinations tend toward smaller government. Since being elected, this Democrat isn’t acting like most Democrats under the Gold Dome.
My friend John Andrews wrote a marvelously ambivalent column about this very subject in the Denver Post last month. On the one hand, his instinct is to be skeptical of a Democratic governor. On the other, he notes that, “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.”
I agree. And at least so far, Gov. Hickenlooper’s actions suggest that he might agree too.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”