Politics & Policy

Governor Moonbeam Dreams Big

A 2016 presidential run would be only the latest in a long run of strange twists of fate for Jerry Brown.

Everyone says Hillary Clinton is a lock for the 2016 Democratic nomination. In New York, big donors to President Obama’s campaigns now barely mention him at dinner parties as they move on to discuss the end of Hillary’s Hiatus from the White House.

But. But everyone was sure Hillary was a shoo-in before the 2008 campaign, the one she was destined to win and that she ignominiously lost to Barack Obama. So a Hillary victory may seem inevitable . . . until it’s not. 

That’s one reason supporters of the 75-year-old California governor Jerry Brown have floated the idea that he might run for president in 2016. “Every move he’s making is the move of a presidential candidate,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader told the Los Angeles Times this week. Brown boosters argue he’s only nine years older than Hillary and only four years older than Vice President Joe Biden, the person usually mentioned as the Democratic backup to Hillary. 

Brown himself has been careful not to rule out a possible run for the White House. He long ago mastered the art of message discipline, which had been noticeably absent during his first stint as California governor from 1975 to 1983. Once derided as “Governor Moonbeam” for his out-there utterances, Brown 2.0 has learned how to remain interesting to reporters without creating unwanted headlines.

A measure of that success is evident in this month’s California Field Poll. His approval rating is now at 58 percent. And as he prepares to run for reelection next year, he leads his closest potential Republican opponents, former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado and Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, by more than 40 percentage points. “It’s overwhelming,” said Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll’s director. “Voters may be satisfied enough with Jerry Brown that they never seriously entertain any of the challengers.”

Progressives attribute Brown’s numbers to an economic comeback that he engineered by investing heavily in infrastructure projects and by convincing voters to raise taxes in a referendum. In April, Joel Stein of Bloomberg BusinessWeek declared: “Brown killed California’s deficit, awakened its economy, and provided hope that the U.S.’s biggest state can be great again,” illustrating that “unsentimental, grown-up leadership can solve an economy’s most intractable problems.”

Even Governor Brown’s office acknowledges that the state’s recovery is fragile, with unemployment still at 9 percent and the state’s budget balanced because the high-performing stock market has generated a gusher of new revenue from the high taxes that the state’s rich pay on capital gains. Nonetheless, California is better off than when he took office, and Brown could claim he’s the rare governor who both raised taxes and restrained the growth of the budget.

In addition to touting his management of California, Brown could woo environmental voters by pointing to his support for Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The nation’s most ambitious law to combat climate change, AB 32 directs new tax revenue toward the goal of increased energy efficiency and greater reliance on renewable energy. The proposal had to survive an initial attempt to repeal it and many legislative efforts to subvert it before it came into effect, and Brown supported it all along the way. If this pleases environmentalists, Brown has also aimed to woo business interests, many of whom are pleased that he has signed laws to move hydraulic fracturing forward in California.

If Brown runs, some observers will inevitably say he’s engaging in a grudge match against the Clintons. In 1992, Brown ran for president and almost derailed Bill Clinton’s nomination by winning in Maine, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, Vermont, and Connecticut. “There’s a lot of history between the Clintons and Jerry Brown, and it’s mostly bad,” recalls Phil Matier of CBS in San Francisco. “He ran against Bill Clinton and really went after him on ethics. He raised questions about Hillary working in the Arkansas law firms when Clinton was governor. Clinton and Brown were not friendly, and Brown embarrassed Clinton on national TV, though they made up a bit, as politicians do. But there’s no love lost between the Clintons and the Browns.”

What would a Brown 3.0 campaign for president look like? It would probably borrow from the themes he ran on during his campaign for governor in 2010, a full 28 years after ending his first stint in the Sacramento governor’s office. “We need someone with insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s mind,” was the Brown-campaign slogan in 2010.

One could also expect a populist campaign that would attack Hillary in the same way that Brown derided his own party’s congressional leadership in 1992: They were, he said, nothing more than a “Stop-and-Shop for the moneyed special interests.” 

Once an indifferent fundraiser, Brown learned in his 2010 gubernatorial race how to compete in the money-raising arena. He ultimately spent more on TV advertising than did Meg Whitman, his wealthy self-funding GOP opponent.  

Despite his newfound fundraising prowess, Brown retains a passionate belief that he doesn’t need big bucks to reach voters — he can also use alternative media and unusual outreach methods. Back in 1992, he often appealed for donations by reciting his then-state-of-the-art toll-free number. This week, the Los Angeles Times called that old 1-800 number on a lark: They discovered to their astonishment that it still worked. 

“You’ve reached the political office of Governor Jerry Brown,” the message begins. Should Brown win a landslide reelection in the nation’s largest state next November, it’s conceivable you might hear that greeting replaced with “Brown for President in 2016.” Stranger things have happened during Jerry Brown’s career.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.


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