The Jerry Brown Model

In a half-in-jest article, the L.A. Times‘ Mark Barabak reports that CA Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t “ruled out” a 2016 presidential run. He hasn’t ruled it in, either, of course.

The famously Delphic governor often leaves people guessing about his motivation and intentions, which leaves plenty of leeway ahead of 2016. Absent a clear-cut statement of disinterest from Brown — who sought the White House in 1976, 1980 and 1992 — some see familiar signs of a presidential-candidate-in-waiting.

Well, Brown has earned a presumption that anything’s possible, if not in his earlier public service then in his current term as Governor of California, where he’s refuting a decade of loud and widespread doomsaying about the state’s fiscal and economic trajectory. But seriously, he’s already defied the usual laws of political retirement. His first and most recent runs for statewide office are separated by 40 years. His won-lost record in political campaigns is 7-5, with all the wins occurring before his 43d birthday or after his 60th, which means quite a losing streak in what would normally be a pol’s salad years. When Brown talks about the effect on California’s finances of the hoary and pestilential Prop 13, he knows whereof he speaks, since he was governor when it passed.

While I don’t think it’s realistic to envision a fourth Brown for President campaign, it is interesting to think of a president governing like Brown, as Barabak indirectly points out:

The governor has widely touted California’s comeback and his record as a model for the rest of the country and, especially, a dysfunctional Washington, D.C. With support from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature — and a combination of spending cuts and voter-approved tax hikes — Brown has brought the state’s deficit-ridden budget under control, overhauled the education finance system to benefit poorer students, pushed through major environmental initiatives and reaped the benefits — job growth, an improved housing market — of a slow but steady economic recovery.

“Things happen in California that are not happening in Washington,” Brown said during an October appearance at an electric-vehicle expo in San Francisco. “We can do a lot of things in California to shift the [political] climate throughout the whole country.”

But Brown, though he on occasion angers liberals and pro-Democratic constituency groups, hasn’t achieved these things in Sacramento by compromising with conservatives or putting together bipartisan “grand bargains.” He runs essentially a one-party government thanks to 2012 gains that gave Democrats obstruction-proof control of both branches of the state legislature.

This may be an eventual model for Democrats in Washington, too, if the Republican Party
continues its drift into “constitutional conservative” ideological rigidity. Not that long ago Democrats narrowly had the votes in Congress to govern (in theory at least) without any Republican support, which wasn’t forthcoming anyway. It could happen again, and this time I imagine you would see a lot less wasted effort, with or without a Jerry Brown at the helm.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.