There’s a case to be made that Jerry Brown is the most successful high-profile Democrat in America today. And there is simply no debating that, after four decades in the national limelight, he stands out as an intellectually dynamic and politically untethered leader in a time of gridlock, frustration and dysfunction. If these were the only variables on the question of political viability, he would in all likelihood be a high-flying presidential prospect for 2016. Yet because he is 76, conventional wisdom says that Brown will finish an epic electoral career at the helm of the state where his father once served as governor, where he first claimed the position from 1975 to 1983, and where he now seeks re-election. But be careful with any calculus that diminishes or dismisses a governor who friends and foes say has a greater capacity to rewrite the rules than anyone in American politics. No prominent player in either party is less bound by convention than Jerry Brown, whose ability to defy expectations is virtually unrivaled in modern American politics.
Brown, who is all but certain to win California’s June 3 open primary and to claim an easy victory in the November general election, could well emerge from this election season as far more than just a Democratic victor in a tough year for Democrats. He could come to be seen as what his supporters suggest Democrats desperately need: a nationally known politician who recognizes the power and possibility of engaged, solutions-oriented government.
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The point here is not to suggest that Brown is an iconic liberal, nor that he is necessarily as progressive as Democratic governors like Vermont’s Peter Shumlin or Maryland’s Martin O’Malley. Brown is more complicated than that. He’s both further to the right and further to the left than other Democrats, depending on the issue of the moment. He frustrates allies by rejecting what are rapidly becoming accepted premises among progressives: the logic of legalizing marijuana, the need to rethink mass incarceration and the foolishness of fracking. Tom Hayden says there are certainly issues on which Brown is “poorly advised,” and some on which the governor is simply wrong. Yet, notes the radical activist and thinker (and Nation editorial board member) who served in the California legislature from 1982 to 2000, “The difference between Jerry Brown and his critics is that he wins elections and they don’t.”
Winning big this year could position Brown as a Democrat with the authority to rework the party’s national narrative around a simple premise: government should be considered not part of the problem but part of the solution. In some senses, he’s already done that.
Headlines in recent years have been dominated by the austerity agendas of Republican governors that make Paul Ryan’s schemes sound moderate. Now, however, as Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and others seek re-election, they are having a hard time defending policies that have delivered neither prosperity nor fiscal stability. Polls suggest that many GOP “stars” will have to fight to keep their jobs in November.
By contrast, there is Jerry Brown. Elected in the Republican-wave year of 2010, over a free-spending billionaire The New York Times suggested was on her way to becoming “a natural contender for president,” Brown assumed the governorship of what The Economist called “the ungovernable state.” He took office facing a $25 billion deficit that had overwhelmed leaders of both parties. Vital programs were being cut, employees were being furloughed, and Mitt Romney was comparing California to austerity-ravaged Greece. Brown responded to the challenge by embracing fiscal responsibility while rejecting the reactionary economics of Romney and Ryan. Brown took an enormous risk in 2012: he bet that Californians were so tired of cuts and dysfunction that they would vote for a big tax increase. Brown bet right, securing overwhelming support for tax hikes on the rich—including a 29 percent increase for Californians with taxable income over $1 million—and a slight increase in the sales tax. That vote, along with solid Democratic majorities in the legislature, gave Brown flexibility. But he still took hits from all sides. Only as revenues began to fill state coffers did the tenor of the state debate shift, and with it the national impression of California and Jerry Brown.