Ritter’s classic dilemma

Governor Bill Ritter’s decision to discontinue his 2010 campaign, and leave the Governor’s office after two years, stunned Democrats and Republicans alike.

After a relatively easy victory during 2006, Ritter was thought to be the very model of a ‘Blue Dog’ Democrat, uniquely well-suited to Colorado’s independent-minded voters. Fiscally moderate, socially conservative, the pro-life former prosecutor attracted votes from across the spectrum.

During his first years in office, Ritter successfully championed green industries and was instrumental in making Colorado a national sustainable energy center. Ritter also supported increased regulation of the natural gas industry on the Western Slope and championed the interests of sportsmen and recreationists.

But the liberal core of the Democratic Party never really warmed up to Ritter, especially when he vetoed union-supported bills that he thought unduly restrictive to businesses.

His was the classic dilemma of the moderate politician. He was too conservative for his liberal supporters, and too liberal for his conservative opponents. In normal times, he wouldn’t have been particularly vulnerable — but these aren’t normal times.

Even though, as Ritter correctly points out, our state’s economy is much stronger than that of the nation as a whole, that doesn’t mean much to those of us who are experiencing the downturn. As James Carville famously said during 1992, as Bill Clinton was poised to defeat a moderate Republican, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

In announcing his decision, Governor Ritter said that he was bowing out in order to spend more time with his family. We don’t doubt him — in our experience with the Governor, he’s always been honest, ethical and thoughtful. Being Governor is a difficult and all-consuming job, as is campaigning for the office.

The governor knew that he faced an uphill battle against the presumptive Republican nominee, former congressman Scott McInnis. By bowing out, he’s free to devote the coming year to governing, and to making tough decisions that might not help him this November.

Democrats are blessed with an abundance of possible candidates. The list starts with Denver’s popular, business-savvy mayor, John Hickenlooper, and includes such luminaries as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, his brother Rep. John Salazar, State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

It’s not clear whether the famously unruly Colorado Democratic Party will quickly unite behind a single candidate or whether there will be an expensive primary fight. Hickenlooper would most likely match up well against McInnis, and could argue that his business and administrative experience trump McInnis’ long record as a lawyer/legislator/lobbyist-but logic and politics are rarely bedmates.

We’re sorry to see Gov. Ritter leave after a single term. He characterized his decision as “intensely personal” and noted that, at age 53, he has spent nearly 30 years in the public sector. It came down, he concluded, “to those relationships that are most important.”

It is not often that politicians leave office without overstaying their welcome. Ritter said, “It has been an honor and a privilege” to serve as governor and graciously bowed out. His willingness to leave an office that so many yearn for is commendable, and it ought to be an example to many stubborn, long-serving pols who cling to office to the detriment of their family, their party, and the people whom they represent.

Gov. Ritter has another year left on his term, and we hope that, freed from the burdens of campaigning, he will, as he promised on Wednesday “make the tough and unpopular decisions that have to be made” for the good of Colorado.

We wish him well.