As if Joe Biden weren't enough for them, the establishment media has found a new distraction to keep them from talking about Bernie Sanders and his surging issue-based campaign, which now has an army of 200,000 volunteers. The distraction is California's Gov. Jerry Brown, who has given absolutely no sign of interest in running—in fact, he ruled it out in January 2014. He's also 77, and would easily be the oldest president ever elected, if he were to change his mind, run and win.
But Michael Kinsley at Vanity Fair and Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post have both written pieces pushing for Brown to run, while the Weekly Standard used a Brown quote out of context—“You could have a lot of surprises”—as a subhead to support its baseless story “Jerry Brown Considering Running for President?”
In context, Brown was responding to questioning about endorsing someone else—not getting into the race himself. When asked if he's endorsed anyone, “like Hillary Clinton, for example?" Brown responded, “No. I haven't endorsed anybody. I will say, though, about the Clintons, with some experience, they are very formidable, and I would not underestimate Hillary Clinton.” He went on to say, “I'm enjoying the luxury of being on the sidelines.”
After being pressed repeatedly to speculate on Joe Biden, Brown noted "It is early, as you said earlier," before delivering the line the Weekly Standard touted: "You could have a lot of big surprises, a lot of action between now and the first Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary." But without a break, he continued, "A lot's going to happen in the Republican primary, and I think some things could happen on the Democratic side as well." The idea of Brown himself jumping in is not remotely involved. See for yourself here.
So, it's clear that this is not about Jerry Brown actually contemplating a presidential run. It's about the idea of him doing so, and how that idea functions in the establishment media world.
The most obvious way it functions I've already mentioned: as a distraction from covering Bernie Sanders, who actually is running for president, and raising issues the establishment media would rather ignore, with a degree of specificity they're particularly uncomfortable with. The fact that he's proving wildly popular only makes their antipathy even worse. That's why they're grasping at straws like the totally unrelated comments Brown made above.
To understand this latest buzz, we turn to Kinsley, since he seems to have started it. His piece titled “Why Aren’t the Democrats Trying to Draft Jerry Brown?” carried the teaser, “With its relative dearth of presidential contenders, the party might do well to look toward the California statehouse.” Here's how his first paragraph sets things up:
They keep saying that the Democrats have no “bench,” meaning the party has no potential candidate to fall back upon if Hillary turns out to have a third e-mail account. Look at the Republicans: they’ve got governors like John Kasich and Bobby Jindal, senators like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, fruitcakes like Donald Trump and . . . well, Trump is unique.
Of course, Trump single-handedly has shown just how pathetic the GOP bench really is—a point that I've made repeatedly in the past. But even though no one can seriously believe it anymore, it's still good enough of a pretense for Kinsley to use. And then he plays his ace: “But the Democrats do have someone.” That someone, of course, is Jerry Brown.
The first point Kinsley makes is a good one—his best, actually: “He’s had more gubernatorial experience than anyone else in the country, and he’s had it in the largest state.” Senators rarely move directly to the White House, governors do it much more often. So this is a solid argument to be making—if only Brown's age weren't a concern. But we should also look at the content of that record. After all, the GOP has all kinds of governors (and ex-governors) competing, and their records have been anything but stellar. Bush did manage high GDP growth—but as I've noted before, it's less impressive on a per capita basis: “Florida’s per-capita GDP grew 19.8 percent over Bush’s two terms (2.5 percent per year), compared to 16.4 percent nationwide (2.1 percent annually), and was due to a housing bubble, which later went bust.” His record is mediocre at best. Without his family money, connections and name, he'd be unremarkable. So, in contrast, how did Brown do in the way of a governing record?
Kinsley works with the preexisting narrative: first stint as “Governor Moonbeam,” second stint reviving the California Dream:
To what extent Brown deserves credit for the rebirth of the California dream and the California economy, not to mention the California state treasury, would no doubt be a subject for debate if he ran for president. But it happened on his watch.
True enough. And if Brown were a Republican, that would be everything we need to know. But it's not. We need to know how those in the middle and those in poverty are doing—and so far, the answer is “not well enough.” Nor is the “Governor Moonbeam” moniker the most important thing to know about Brown's first stint as governor, as those who were here know quite well. Brown followed Reagan in office, just eight years after Reagan surprisingly beat Brown's father, Pat, who is still rightly regarded as the father of modern California for his sweeping work on infrastructure and higher education (including the California Master Plan).
One factor in the younger Brown's swift rise (first elected to the L.A. Community College Board just six years before becoming governor) was a calculated difference from his father. Pat Brown began life as Republican, even running for state Assembly in 1928, but in the wake of the Great Depression he became a stalwart New Deal Democrat after FDR took office. He laid the foundations for modern California along New Deal lines, creating a flood of college graduates from the working class, and building highways and water works that made possible generations of growth. But Reagan defeated him in 1966, based on growing social strife, and the younger Brown succeeded Reagan by capitalizing on his name, but stressing a more “post-ideological” image.
On the subject of Brown's thinking, Kinsley writes:
He has a speculative mind and likes to play with ideas—and not, like so many politicians, just the idea of ideas. During his first eight years as governor, 1975 to 1983, this character trait did not serve him well. It earned him his famous nickname of “Governor Moonbeam,” and made him a Trump-like “figure of fun” when he first ran for president in 1976.
But the stress here is all on how the political media saw Brown, rather than what he was actually up to. A Catholic background, New Deal titan of a father, and above all a rigorous Jesuit education combined to produce an inquisitive, but even more so an imaginatively argumentative mind, which retained his father's broad sympathies, along with the social teachings of the Church, while absorbing much of what was going on in the culture around him, which in California was particularly rich and vibrant at the time. All that was to the good, for the most part. Imaginative thinking is almost always in short supply among elected politicians, except in the lower register of running schemes. But in politics, imaginative thinking still needs solid grounding in the real world. It can be fatal to forget all the working-class blood, sweat and tears that's gone into making it possible for children of the working class to have previously unimaginable opportunities today.
And indeed, Brown's intellect was prone to getting carried away with itself, and missing significant political developments with less intellectual challenge to them. Most important, as leader of California Democrats, Brown failed to see the conditions growing that led to the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, limiting property tax, and launching a nationwide anti-tax movement. While sold on the basis of protecting senior citizens on fixed incomes, its benefits went much more to businesses (especially in the long run), and had a series of crippling effects on state and local government. Democrats realized the danger—but too late. A more measured counter-proposal, aimed specifically at providing special treatment for residential property was placed on the ballot (Proposition 8) by the Legislature, but came too late, with inadequate planning and organizing, and went down to defeat, while Prop 13 passed.
In addition to everything else, it helped change the tenor of California state politics for decades to come. Brown lost his bid for U.S. Senate in 1982, and two consecutive GOP governors won two terms each, until Pete Wilson's support for the anti-immigrant Prop 187 profoundly alienated Hispanic voters. But even after that, Republicans were able to knock off Gray Davis (who had been Brown's chief of staff) in an unprecedented recall election, which put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office for over seven years.
In short, California Democrats paid a very high and long-lasting price for Brown's inattentive leadership. He can't be blamed alone, of course. But the negative legacy of Prop 13 still lies on the state to this day. Turning to his more recent stint as governor, it's quite true that things have gotten much better on his watch. But that's in part because of how bad they got before, based on a framework of assumptions—including knee-jerk anti-tax atttitudes—which date all the way back to Prop 13.
Brown's immediate predecessor, Schwarzenegger, could not balance California's budget—except via a series of short-term gimmicks, credit-card borrowing and the like—precisely because taxes were unthinkable. While Brown was willing to move forward with taxes, his aim was far more modest than that of progressive activists, who ended up dramatically expanding the scope of what he was considering. The story of how this came about was the subject of a session at Netroots Nation 13, “The California Comeback: How Progressives Stopped California’s Decline," about which I wrote afterward:
In the corporate media, Proposition 30 is virtually synonymous with Governor Jerry Brown, but it's actually a compromise Brown was forced to strike with a coalition of progressive groups who began circulating a petition for a millionaires tax in early 2012, forcing Brown to withdraw his own, more modest initiative, and negotiate the much more progressive measure which voters ended up approving by a nine percent margin last November. Initially, Brown refused to meet with the millionaire's tax organizers. “We kept trying to talk to him, he didn't want to talk to us,” said Rick Jacobs, head of the Courage Campaign, who moderated the panel.
But the California Federation of Teachers put up the funding to circulate petitions for the millionaire's tax, and the response forced Brown's hand. “Without [CFT] taking that risk and empowering the peole here, the governor's measure would have gone forward as it was, and we probably would have lost,” Jacobs said. “It was the first time in the history of the state a governor pulled a ballot measure he was circulating.”
So yes, Brown did back a tax measure that both helped to balance the budget and restore tax equity. But he did not lead this effort. He was forced into it.
And that is what so clearly sets Brown apart from Bernie Sanders. Sanders knows that any Democratic president fighting for fundamental change is going to need an organized army of citizen allies, and he's actively working to build that army, as his campaign has enrolled 200,000 volunteers, as he told Rachel Maddow on Sept. 17. This is a far, far cry from the lone figure above it all that Jerry Brown cuts. Which is, ultimately, the most significant reason why Jerry Brown is not the candidate Democrats need to make their party stronger. Bernie Sanders is.
I don't mean to dismiss Jerry Brown too harshly. There's a lot more to his legacy than I've mentioned above. His record of appointments in his first stint as governor was unprecedented in its diversity, for example. That's one tremendously important sense in which he truly continued his father's work of creating modern California—and to reach its full potential, 21st century America needs to keep following the example he set 40 years ago. That's no small achievement. Without a doubt he would be an invaluable addition to the next Democratic administration. He's just not the person to lead it.