01/03/2011 08:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Governator to Moonbeam

It's the fate of Jerry Brown, the 34th and 39th governor of California, to succeed Republican movie stars as governor. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a much bigger movie star than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed of being. (And Reagan is a much bigger Republican than Schwarzenegger ever intended to be, as angry right-wingers have been pointing out for years.)

Schwarzenegger wasn't simply the biggest action movie star in the world prior to winning his first landslide election as governor of California in 2003, he was, more specifically, the biggest science fiction movie star in the world.

In this key TV ad from his landslide winning campaign for governor of California, Jerry Brown talks about tough choices for the people of the Golden State.

Indeed, there is something decidedly sci-fi about him becoming governor of California. (Cue raucous comments.) And there's always been something more than a little sci-fi about Jerry Brown.

He is, after all, "Governor Moonbeam," the moniker attached to him decades ago by irascible Chicago columnist Mike Royko for his then far-out ideas like communications satellites, energy conservation, alternative energy, etc. Royko later declared the term null and void, saying Brown was very grounded in his futurism, but the term was forever attached to Brown, who has made it something of a badge of honor in making it clear he's not another hack politician.

Brown today crosses the street from his new loft apartment -- he and new First Lady Anne Gust Brown are keeping their Oakland house for weekends -- for his inauguration in the venerable Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. In keeping with the enforced austerity of state government in this time, as well as Brown's own longstanding austere inclinations, his inaugural is a decidedly low-key affair, topped off, as it were, with a reception at the California Railroad Museum late in the afternoon in Old Sacramento not far from the Western terminus of the Pony Express.

I've learned, incidentally, that, in an historic first, Brown's gubernatorial chief-of-staff will be his wife, Anne Gust Brown.

The governor essentially directs his own campaigns these days, but his chief manager in his landslide win over billionaire Meg Whitman's biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history, as in his landslide victory in the 2006 race for California attorney general, was the new first lady of California. I first met her in the early '90s. She's a very smart, witty, well-organized Stanford and University of Michigan Law grad who was a top exec at The Gap.

This Brown Inaugural is not at all like his father's second inaugural. Governor Pat's inaugural gala in January 1963, after he beat Richard Nixon, was organized by none other than Frank Sinatra. (Jerry was then a Yale Law student.) Sadly, the times dictate no Eagles headliner inaugural extravaganza for Governor Jerry's historic third inaugural.

Put another way, the real party time was election night. Given the austerity budget and hard choices to come, the festive spirit is in short supply.

In his final address as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks Californians for the greatest honor of his life.

Of course, with Jerry Brown, "Less is more" has always been a key dictum. With Schwarzenegger, more is more.

Where Schwarzenegger's events tend to the over-produced, Brown's tend to be under-produced.

Both have had controversial governorships, Schwarzenegger's especially so. Incidentally, I've been assisting Schwarzenegger in assessing his governorship.

Once among the most popular governors in history, Schwarzenegger, who made plenty of mistakes, more recently found his job approval rating down in the depths of the low 20s where former Governor Gray Davis was during the dramatic 2003 recall election which brought Schwarzenegger to power.

In the trademark distemper of the times, hyper-partisans on the right type Schwarzenegger as a dangerous radical out to create a green socialist state at the behest of the Kennedy family. And hyper-partisans on the left say he is a dangerous reactionary out to destroy education and crush the poor at the behest of his oil company/Enron masters.

Was it good that Schwarzenegger was elected? And was it good that he was elected in 2003 rather than 2006, when he would have been better prepared? (In 2002, I was the first to predict that Schwarzenegger would be the next governor of California, albeit elected in the normal course of things. But it became evident early in 2003 that the state was in a mood to recall Davis, and I was the only one to write that Schwarzenegger, who I knew beforehand, intended to run before he made his "surprise" announcement on The Tonight Show.)

The reality is that Davis, who readers know I've known for decades, was unable to govern after winning re-election in 2002 with half the margin projected in the final polling over poor deer-in-the-headlights conservative Bill Simon.

Brown and Schwarzenegger expressed similar views on key issues such as climate change, renewable energy and green technology development, and stem cell research in winning their respective landslide victories for attorney general and governor in 2006.

His campaign had poisoned the well with the public with its relentless negativity. I remember walking into the Century Plaza the afternoon of election day 2002 and running into Davis's campaign manager, Larry Grisolano, and press secretary, Roger Salazar -- who turned out to be main consultants for the pro-Brown California Working Families independent expenditure committee over the summer -- and having a drink with them. They were very down in the dumps. Democratic turnout had really fallen off, as Davis's closing campaign turned off voters, and they knew that his 10-point projected win in late polling would only be half that.

In 2003, Davis was simply unable to govern. Republican legislators were deathly opposed, and Democrats (many of whom had also been insulted by Davis chief political advisor Garry South) really disliked him.

The relentless negativity of the campaign further poisoned the well. I doubt he would have gotten anything significant passed, and the deficit bonds he'd cobbled together with the Legislature would likely have been declared unconstitutional, with Davis having no ability to make them kosher at the ballot box.

A number of good things have happened with Schwarzenegger as governor, including major infrastructure and renewable energy programs as well as political reforms. But now we are focused on the state's fiscal crisis.

On the one hand, Schwarzenegger's successor, Jerry Brown, confronts a very serious crisis. On the other hand, it is a ridiculous crisis.

California has the eighth largest economy in the world. At some $2 trillion per year, it is equal to those of New York and Texas combined. The state budget shortfall is barely one percent of that.

The budget crisis, which has become chronic since the end of the dot-com boom, exists because the dysfunctional culture of Sacramento is dominated by ultra-government and anti-government lobbies who pushed for unsustainable program spending and tax cuts, all of it in a political environment in which voters are largely ignorant of the facts, within a system in which, alone among major states, it takes a two-thirds vote to raise taxes but only a majority vote to create a tax loophole. Voters want cuts, but not in the areas in which the money is really spent.

The unraveling began when then Governor Pete Wilson cut the car tax during the dot-com boom. It continued with program expansions and some further tax cuts under Davis.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's November 2006 victory speech at the Beverly Hilton.

After his 2002 re-election, Davis raised the car tax back to its earlier, pre-Pete Wilson level. But he was trepidatious about it from the beginning when I talked with him about it in January 2003, knowing how unpopular a move it would be when he finally did it some months later. Voters don't like having tax cuts reversed. Schwarzenegger campaigned on cutting the car tax again -- I was about 20 feet away when he theatrically pushed a button to smash a car at an Orange County fairground -- and did so in his first act as governor. That cost the state $6 billion a year that it badly needed. It also headed off a likely popular initiative to cut the car tax.

Fatefully, Schwarzenegger chose not to get revenue elsewhere in 2004, or to institute major budget cuts. Instead, he bet on the rising tide of the economy. The state managed to muddle through for the next few years as he tried unsuccessfully to enact state spending limits until the bottom dropped out of California's revenues with the great global recession.

Schwarzenegger is a preternatural optimist by nature. He's had to be in order to make his rather astonishing journey from small town boy in rural Austria to become first the world bodybuilding champion, then the biggest action movie star in the world. He's faced doubters at every stage, including me in 1985. That's when I successfully advised Congressman John Garamendi -- then a state senator and later lieutenant governor under Schwarzenegger -- that he should not have Schwarzenegger, with whom he'd hit it off as one old jock to another, headline a big fundraiser for him. It was obvious, I said, as Garamendi has ruefully reminded me over the years, that Schwarzenegger would never be a big movie star and in any event, he was far too conservative.

(This, er, foresight, ranks right up there with my pushing my friend Kathleen Brown, then the state treasurer, to run for governor against incumbent Wilson in 1994, before she was ready, and four years before she would have a relatively easy time of it running for an open seat.)

After pushing the hope button in 2004, winning passage of special election initiatives to make the state's deficit bonds constitutional and enact a weak spending limit, avoiding new revenues and big cuts in the process, Schwarzenegger embarked on his infamous "Year of Reform" in 2005, pushing special election initiatives to control state spending, stop legislators from drawing their own districts, deal with teacher quality, and rein in public employee unions.

Without belaboring the details, each dealt with a core of legitimate concern, but they were all pitched too far to the right and in any event, it was far too much for one election.

Schwarzenegger signed California's landmark climate change/renewable energy program into law on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in September 2006.

By late summer 2005, Schwarzenegger was trying to negotiate his way out of the special election, engaging in marathon sessions with Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who had been till that point a very sharp critic,as I reported exclusively at the time. But intractable interests behind both politicians sabotaged the dealings, and the wasteful election went on.

Schwarzenegger recovered in spectacular fashion in 2006, winning a landslide re-election, winning enactment of the biggest infrastructure package since the 1960s heyday of Governor Pat Brown and California's landmark climate change/renewable energy program, which Schwarzenegger and others successfully defended in the November 2010 elections.

But 2007 was consumed with his quest for a near universal health care bill described rather gleefully by MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell as much like that proposed by Hillary Clinton. In a sense, Schwarzenegger came close, with Nunez, now his friend and ally, getting the bill through the state Assembly. But in another sense, it was never really there, as the bill failed passage in the state Senate. By going for the big enchilada, Schwarzenegger passed up more incremental but real success, such as health care for all California's children, and saw momentum which could have been used in other areas dissipate as a result.

Meanwhile, a near depression was on tap, though few knew it at the time.

California entered the recession in fall 2008 in what Brown and his new state budget director Ana Matosantos -- who was Schwarzenegger's budget director for the past year -- described recent budget forums as "poor fiscal shape." The state government's underlying out-year budget problem was more than $7 billion and there was little budgetary reserve to speak of.

I remember speaking with Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2008 about the situation. He had just faced down the Legislature, threatening a veto unless he got his way on the beginnings of budgetary reforms he had been pushing for some time. Winning a face-off on a threatened veto override, he thought then that he had begun to turn the corner on the budget. The global recession hit with full force shortly after that.

In November 2007, Brown and Schwarzenegger joined forces to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration in order to protect California's landmark climate change/renewable energy initiative.

The global recession absolutely devastated state revenues. And the state government responded with three budgets in a row that, even with big cuts, relied heavily on short-term solutions and solutions that did not materialize.

Here are some key numbers, courtesy of the state Department of Finance. Contrary to what most voters believe, 71.1% of the state government's general fund expenditures actually go to fund local government and its services, including education. Only 13.3% goes to state operations. 6.7% goes to debt service, 5.3% to the state's universities, and 3.6% to public pension systems.

The state employee payroll is only $9.2 billion. Put it another way, every state worker would have to be fired not once but three times over and the budget deficit still would not quite be eliminated.

And so absent permanent budget solutions, either cuts or revenues or, more likely, both, large budget deficits will persist for years.

Even with economic recovery. The UCLA forecast is that unemployment will drop below 11% next year; it's 12.4% now. But it's a slow-growth recovery without a new economic boom, such as green tech, which is why Brown is pushing greentech.

And so now it is Jerry Brown's turn. He had a reputation, with the conventionally-minded who tend to dominate fields like politics and journalism, for billowy futurism during his first governorship. But it really wasn't all that billowy after all.

Brown promoted the first, and lasting, high tech boom of Silicon Valley, with his friends Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, and Bob Noyce, the Intel co-founder, serving in his administration.

He championed renewable energy and energy efficiency, setting the course which made California the leader in each.

He created the biggest rainy day fund in state history, and lowered taxes during his two terms in the 1970s and 1980s. Though right-wingers claim he was a big tax-and-spender, naturally, since that is their rhetorical playbook no matter what, the reality was that conventional liberals and leftists blasted him for not spending enough, going so far as to claim that his rainy day fund caused the Proposition 13 property tax cut initiative.

Now Brown is taking the helm again, this time at a time of crisis. With many of the usual suspects opining doom and gloom for California.

Brown has seen all this before. Indeed, the story of the Brown family is woven throughout the fabric of California's story, from the Gold Rush on. Throughout it all seeing the sweep of history, with continual patterns of boom and bust, but ultimately always moving forward.