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Jerry Brown Drops Out of Stealth Mode In Washington to Talk Presidential Politics

03/16/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

Governor Jerry Brown, who can go for weeks without holding a public event, dropped his latest stealth mode with a trip over the weekend to Washington where he held private meetings at the White House and State Department and attended the annual semi-off-the-record Gridiron media dinner. In addition to his private talks on climate change, energy, health care, and water policy (pushing forward on his water conveyance plan), he did something he hasn't done publicly in California: Talk at some length on presidential politics.

In a White House press availability and in later talks at the Washington Post, Brown made it clear that he has no plan to run next year, a decision which would make his generation -- which includes Gary Hart and John McCain -- the first in American history not to produce a President of the United States.

Brown doesn't see any real purpose in going up against Hillary Clinton. As he put it: "Running against Hillary is like running against Jerry Brown in California. In the Democratic Party, it's not going to happen. You reach a certain point of party loyalty and it's very powerful." A primary challenge to her "doesn't look like a fruitful use of my time. I would say she's extremely formidable and it doesn't appear that there's anything that would block her path."

Anything?

Well, Brown acknowledged that controversies, such as the recent email scandalette, which he thinks may not have finished playing out, can add up.

In any event, Brown has his hands full with a very consequential fourth term as governor. He's the only Californian to win four terms, and may well be the last, given the state's term limits law.

Indeed, Brown says he doesn't see any real purpose in the Democrats hosting a primary fight at all. He says he'd rather see Clinton taking on the Republicans than getting hamstrung dealing with primary challenges. Brown spoke from the experience of being helped in his 2010 return to the governorship by clearing the Democratic primary field while big-money Republicans held a bitter battle.

Although I believe that Brown would have won anyway, he was helped in gaining a landslide victory over eBay billionaire Meg Whitman by then Insurance Commissioner Steve Poisoner becoming persuaded to focus his campaign for the governorship on illegal immigration. The spectacle of two Republicans then scrapping over who would be more draconian against largely Latino immigrants in order to appeal to the Republicans' nativist core reminded Latino voters why they mostly dislike the Republican Party. And it set up Whitman for the general election revelation of her own employment of illegal immigrants.

What does Brown want Hillary to focus on over the course of the primaries rather than a set of primary challengers? Brown has a few ideas.

"Republicans say don't deal with climate change, don't deal with immigrants, don't do the Affordable Care Act, don't tax high-income people. California is doing all of that and we're prospering," Brown said.

"What Hillary needs is a good debate drawing the distinctions between where she stands and where all these Republicans, these wannabes running around, are."

Brown also talked about his own place in the Democratic Party and American politics.

"I think I occupy a unique part of the party, and I don't find too many people in the same place. ... It's a very small part of the party, unfortunately."

If that sounds somewhat rueful on his part, it's because it probably is.

It's good to be unique. But in politics it can mean that your message hasn't been getting through.

Brown gets widespread praise for California's comeback. And though some landowners in the Central Valley are trying to drag out the otherwise greenlit high-speed rail project there, he has more good news of late.

Unemployment has dipped again, to 6.9 percent.

There's another billion dollars in state revenue beyond administration forecasts. (Which will, however, increase pressure for more spending from Democratic interest groups.)

With a Bloomberg Business columnist citing bursting high tech revenues and burgeoning corporate returns across the board in calling California (now the world's seventh largest economy) the nation's best place for business, Brown is welcoming efforts by some Republican governors to try to poach in the Golden State. That includes right-wing Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose, ah, interesting grasp on reality is reflected by his edict banning any reference to climate change or global warming in state documents about one of the states most impacted by climate change.

Brown has also dealt with a years-in-the-making problem of the Public Utilities Commission around seemingly incestuous relations with utilities, with his new PUC President Michael Picker putting forth a proposed new $1.6 billion fine on giant Pacific Gas & Electric for practices emerging around one of its natural gas pipelines blowing up part of a San Francisco Bay Area town in 2010.

That's all good, all part of the comeback narrative which the media gets.

But the essence of the Brown approach -- a blend of expansively visionary futurism around technology, energy, transportation, the environment, health, and education with hyper-prudent pragmatism about regular government functions -- remains far from a predominant tendency in the national Democratic Party, much less American politics. This, despite three Brown presidential campaigns and a record fourth term as governor of America's mega-state.

Why hasn't it penetrated more through the haze of hack politics? It's certainly not that it's not interesting, or frequently prescient.

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