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Is Jerry Brown the California John McCain?

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At the California Democratic Party 2010 State Convention, Jerry Brown tossed a bone to the press when he called for a series of debates with Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, trailing behind Whitman nearly 50 points in recent polls. Some reporters snapped, some merely sniffed--but really did anybody take Brown's gambit seriously? From the get-go, Meg Whitman was no more joining a three-way debate than Barack Obama did town hall meetings with John McCain two summers ago. A slight whiff of desperation undercut McCain's otherwise rather civic-minded suggestion, every time he trotted it out. I caught that same air in the Los Angeles Convention Center hall where Jerry Brown spoke on Saturday. And this was not the first time in Brown's 11-minute speech that he reminded me of McCain.

Brown's jabs at the millions of dollars Whitman has spent on her gubernatorial bid (and I'm assuming here, if not in the serendipitous course of daily life, that she will be the Republican nominee) reminded me of McCain's swipes at the size of the Obama kitty. Standing on the mountaintop of monetary righteousness (suddenly a popular geography), Brown belted out what was simultaneously the best rhetorical moment in his speech and the most ridiculous. "Democracy is not about buying hundreds of millions of dollars of thirty-second TV ads. We live in a democracy. We're not consumers of advertising, we're agents of democratic choice. We're actors in historical drama."

Brown's comment took me back to Obama v. Clinton in the Texas primary, when local radio station owners were astounded by the fact that the Obama campaign had more money to spend on radio ads than there was space to sell. Took me back to Obama's reneging on a general promise to wage the general election using public financing only. John McCain did not take that well--remember? But of course Obama and his campaign made the right decision. In a political campaign, just as in any warfare, a candidate wields his or her strengths. Whitman has three Obamic strengths: an enormous war chest; decision-making acumen all the more formidable because underestimated; a very controlling campaign team that so far has made only a few mistakes.

The Brown tactic should be to ignore (publicly) the Whitman money, because railing futilely against an opponent shows weakness, while at the same time implementing a strategy to counter it. And surely by the fall Jerry Brown will do this. But it is ominous that in his debut campaign speech before his fellow state Democrats Brown only fitfully demonstrated his strength: the depth of his knowledge of and experience with government. Furthermore, Brown and Whitman both know that past attempts at spending to a California victory have failed. (Speaking of "historical drama," the best dramatic irony of the convention was the Saturday luncheon address from Arianna Huffington, who campaigned in 1994 for her then-husband Michael Huffington when he spent 28 million against Dianne Feinstein in a fierce race for the US Senate. At the time, this was the most money ever spent on a non-presidential American election campaign.)

More than fitful, Brown's speech was erratic. (Not to mention his longer press conference that followed, which you can read about richly-detailed here.) These qualities, too, are reminiscent of John McCain, who also once upon a time waxed long and large to the press. For the first time, I have considered that age (Brown is 72) might come into play. Here is Brown Saturday on a topic about which he should be able to speak cogently:

"We gotta promote some jobs, we gotta promote green jobs, jobs of the future. How do you do that? One thing--why, some--how do you get at it? We want to build solar and wind and geothermal with desert. You gotta get it to where all the people are. . . . [We need someone] who knows what politics is all about, because there's a lot of regulatory underbrush, some of it good, some of it not so good, and we have to get it out of the way."

Aside from the fact that "green jobs" is the latest mantra from state to state, Brown here sounds like a geezer who couldn't find the desert much less prioritize its use. His thrust is that he has the "red tape" know-how to reduce the building of green power transmission lines from 9 years to "2 or 3." But the disjointedness of his language sabotages his assertion. And more to the point, Californians want jobs in the here-and-now. Brown is unable to ground "green jobs" outside Utopia.

Meg Whitman has released a plan for California. It outlines a strategy. It presents a few specifics. It is a 48-page document. It was released March 16 via PDF and in mobile device formats. It will not cost Jerry Brown millions to counter with his own plan. If he does not do that, furthermore, Whitman will have claimed that high ground for her own, no matter the quality of the plan itself.

Like McCain, Brown has the disconcerting habit of dwelling in the past. "I hear about this job creation machine at one of those companies--well, that compares not at all to the 1.9 million jobs created when I was governor." Which was when--1975? Americans are not good students of history--that's just the way it is. And what company is his stalking horse? eBay?

"You talk about things and knowing how to do stuff--hey--uh--California--I started the--uh--energy efficiency standards, first ones in the country."

"By the way--jobs? How about the California Conservation Corps. I started that in 1976."

Brown is right. He is commendable. These accomplishments should be on his epitaph. But the sloppiness of his references are troubling. The ellipses are troubling. The most priceless was an incoherent comment on Whitman and Poizner TV ads: "I'm not [?] behind those women in poppy fields, beautiful car crashes over the mountain, let's have some honest debates." And then there was the weird: "Obama is on the ballot." (I replayed my tape several times to make sure that Brown's tone was not metaphorical. It was not, although surely he meant the comment as such.)

All these disconnections speak to the most salient problem for Jerry Brown come November. He's been there; he's seen that. Is he really going to be willing to do what has to be done to win? To work the grassroots, to speak in one small venue after another, to shake a thousand hands, to listen with seeming attention to stories and complaints from voters, to pose for pictures with all the patience in the world, to explain lucidly his vision for the state and an incremental plan to achieve it?

Brown sounds like a man rushing past the humbler parts of campaigning. This is understandable. After all, he has run for the Presidency and was a serious candidate. But he wears the aura of a sage who finds it tedious to explain himself. This is not a winning strategy for reclaiming the California governorship.

Of course, Jerry Brown is highly intelligent and knowledgeable. I hesitate to conclude that he has become an iconoclast whose mind has stuffed itself to the satiety of incoherence. I do think, at least for now, that he is merely afflicted with the impatience of the egoistic polymath. Even at 72, and certainly as a former Jesuit, he should be able to muster the inner discipline to overcome this. On the campaign trail, at least. But his message must cohere better than his debut speech at the convention. Once again here was Jerry on jobs: "We want to invest in the people, just like the federal government invested in AIG, in the banks, in Citicorp, Bank of America." The audience was confused because he had just excoriated the federal government for its relationship with big finance.

History shows that a candidate does not have to be the most intelligent or the most qualified to win an election. But he or she must make sense. More than participating, the voters first must understand the "historical drama" that the candidate and his or her campaign has asked them to join. Brown and his campaign are still working on the first act. Even as Brown was slamming Whitman's money and ingenuously challenging her to a "three-way," he declared, "This is gonna be mano y mano, one camp against the other."

Get it together, Jerry Brown. California needs a ferocious debate.