I’ll admit, I have not exactly been a Jerry Brown fan these past few months. His campaign, at times, has seemed halfhearted, even amateurish. His interactions with the media have been unsatisfying. And his solutions to California’s über-problems—a stalemated budget process; an initiative system that produces a crazy quilt of competing, often contradictory policies; and a pension system that could well run the state into insolvency—have been deliberately vague.
What has bothered me most, though, is that I don’t think he has articulated the reason for his swan-song run for governor well enough to defeat the Meg Whitman juggernaut. And that, to my mind, is the Great Unpardonable—letting a billionaire who hadn’t even bothered to vote for most of her adult life buy her way into the governor’s office.
Last night, however, at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center, with union supporters and student activists parading outside in the 100 degree heat, Brown redeemed himself. His voice as gravelly and hoarse as Brando’s in The Godfather, his bald head, jerky arm motions and feisty language redolent of the comic actor Peter Boyle in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, the old Democrat came alive.
What was fascinating was the turf on which he chose to fight. Not to mince words, Jerry Brown broke every rule in the 2010 political playbook and came out looking like a winner. While Whitman seemed somewhat wooden, wedded to a rather predictable script that she recites often but without much passion, Brown came across as intensely committed to what he kept calling his "values" and, at the same time, oddly relaxed.
With the electorate seemingly hostile to incumbents and "career politicians," Brown made an impassioned defense of public service and the importance of expertise, of actually knowing how government works. He touted his government experiences—-even his acknowledged mistakes—rather than running away from them. Yes, as a young governor in the 1970s he presided over California’s slide from budget surplus to deficit. But, he said, he was the one who built up the surplus in the first place, not least by imposing "frugality" on the legislature. Yes, he had opposed Prop 13, limiting the amount of property taxes that local governments could collect. But once it passed he was the one who made it work, using the state’s surplus to support local school systems that otherwise would have had to fire teachers wholesale.
In an anti-tax era, Brown ripped into Whitman for supporting a $5 billion tax giveaway to "further enrich billionaires, who’ve actually been doing pretty well these last few years." The wealthy elite, he said, should be the ones "sacrificing first" and tightening their belts the most.
In a period in which young, fresh, of-the-moment politicians—be they Obama or Palin or Christine O’Donnell—rack up political capital by virtue of their inexperience, Brown repeatedly made a virtue of the accumulated wisdom that comes with growing older. Although he would hate the analogy, he neutralized the implied allegation of geriatric frailty as well as Reagan did in his presidential debates a generation ago. When Brown was asked about his public pension, he said he was doing Californians a favor by running for office at the age of 72. So long as he’s working, he said, he isn’t collecting a pension. He paused, deadpanned. Then he went on, flapping his arms for emphasis, his voice getting louder: if he happens to win a second term (which, incidentally, would break a pledge he made earlier in the season to be a one-term governor), he’ll save taxpayers even more money by postponing his retirement until he turns 80.
The audience loved it. They laughed. They giggled. Brown, who was renowned for his prickly relationship with audiences when he was governor, allowed himself a little smile. By contrast, when Whitman condescendingly referred to financially struggling UC students as "children," there was an audible gasp among a significant section of the audience.
Of course, there were the usual platitudes and clichés: about needing a spine of steel to tackle the budget crisis, about who is a better belt tightener, about who would be more willing to punish legislators for failing to enact a workable budget, about whose campaign ads have been more dishonest and vile. Both candidates indulged in these verbal contortions too much to make it a truly memorable jousting contest. But Brown, at least, managed to go beyond the platitudes. He came across as real, raw, human. How many politicians as seasoned as he is would throw in the words "damn" and "hell" during a live televised debate?
I don’t know what percentage of the electorate tuned in to watch this debate, and frankly, I don’t know if Brown has come alive too late to break the Whitman machine. But I do know this was the night he properly explained why he is running for governor and what he hopes to accomplish. The debate was fun to watch, a breath of fresh air in a rather dispiriting political season. And with any luck, it will make a difference come November.