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The Shape of Things To Come: Hillary a Lock, Jerry Brown for President?

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We will know a great deal more about the 2016 presidential race in a year's time. This is the year in which impressions about the slow-paced economic recovery will solidify into a partial frame for the next presidential campaign. A year in which impressions about lame duck President Barack Obama, and the disastrously rolled out national health care law, become more fixed. And a year in which Hillary Clinton's legacy as secretary of state comes into sharper focus.

That latter is why the former first lady and New York senator -- according to her admiring former colleague, former Republican Defense Secretary Bob Gates, the most reflexively hawkish member of the Obama Cabinet -- has a major memoir coming out this summer, and why her opponents are gunning for her.

I wrote in December 2012 that Hillary may be unbeatable in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. She's certainly the most likely next president.

But I also wrote this: "If things go sour, and there are many things that can go wrong, a clever candidate could rub a few words together and light a fire in the Democratic primaries against Clinton."

At the moment, she is mostly freezing and/or clearing the field, with the economic left's favored candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, saying she won't go, and Vice President Joe Biden a very distant second. Governor Jerry Brown, for whom there was a flurry of media enthusiasm late last year, says he's not planning to run. A host of political operatives, including Obama campaign manager, Jim Messina, are making career decisions by clambering on board the Hillary bandwagon early. Messina and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a well-known liberal commentator, are the new co-chairs of the country's leading liberal and Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, which this week announced it is for Hillary long before anyone has even declared.

But presidential politics, like Mother Nature, abhors a vacuum. And even though the days when we in the Gary Hart for President campaign could pull off a surprise second in Iowa for the then relatively unknown senator for what is today chump change (well under a million bucks) and parlay that into a victory a week later in New Hampshire are now little more than a fond memory due to the crashing waves of increasingly unregulated big money in politics, there is a way for an insurgent who is already a big name to make a very big splash in this race.

Which brings us back to Jerry Brown, someone for whom, for all the establishmentarianism of his certain campaign this year for a record fourth term as California's governor, insurgency comes very naturally. Earlier, I described his first three presidential campaigns -- 1976, 1980, and 1992 -- in which Brown was ultimately out-shown only by some of the biggest names in modern political history in the form of President Bill Clinton, President Jimmy Carter, and Senator Ted Kennedy.

He says now he's not planning to run. Which, with his still undeclared re-election campaign getting underway and major dynamic affecting the shape of the presidential race still playing out, makes the most sense.

But should he decide to run, he has some unique

Unlike New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, he doesn't share the same geographical base with Hillary.

Unlike Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, he has a broader message base than an academic critique from the left of Wall Street-dominated economics.

Unlike lesser known would-be candidates of a new generation such as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, for which he was a prototype back in the day, Brown has fame, one of the biggest offices, big accomplishments, and big experience in electoral combat.

Unlike Biden, who could struggle to distinguish himself from his Obama colleague Hillary, Brown is not tied to the controversial Obama administration.

His problems lie elsewhere.

At first blush, more than a few would consider the 75-year old, who acts 20 years younger and sounds younger than that, too old. Though in reality people are living longer and working much longer. I don't expect Brown, whose parents lived into their 90s, to ever retire.

More seriously, Brown still has a lot to do as governor, much of which would have to be accomplished in the first two years of his final terms. Which coincide with the two years before the presidential election.

Brown just delivered his latest well-received State of the State address. While he touted the by now well-known California comeback story, he also emphasized the many things to be done. You can read the full speech here.

A million new jobs since 2010, a budgetary surplus in the billions and a minimum wage rising to $10 an hour!

This year, Californians have a lot to be proud of. For a decade, budget instability was the order of the day. A lethal combination of national recessions, improvident tax cuts and too much spending created a financial sink hole that defied every effort to climb out. But three years later, here we are - with state spending and revenues solidly balanced, and more to come.

But we are not out of the woods and we certainly are not out of the drought. Life is uncertainty, the climate is changing - not for the better - and the business cycle and the stock market are historically volatile, with good years followed by bad, with painful regularity.

And while we know our revenues will fluctuate up and down, our long-term liabilities are enormous and ever growing.

Beyond that, he is pursuing the paying down of debt, creation of a rainy day fund to even out the boom and bust cycle, further implementing his principle of "subsidiarity" which brings greater responsibility and control to local government in more equitable education funding and prison realignment of lower level offenders, new water storage, conservation and conveyance to deal with the new drought and likely droughts to come in the greenhouse era, further implementation of California's landmark climate change program, expansion of new energy and transportation systems, and the expansion of bioscience, to name a few.

It's an expansive agenda, one of historic import.

One which would be difficult to carry out while conducting a conventional presidential campaign. But there are many ways to participate in presidential politics, to influence the shape of the campaign and its meaning, to make a strike for the nomination or to hold on until Hillary is more on the same page, beyond the obvious approach.

Ironically, in his three campaigns, Brown did the best when he sidled into the race and emerged late in the game.

Incidentally, and to be clear, I don't write this as an anti-Clinton person. As it happens, I was with Brown against Bill Clinton in 1992 and supported Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2007 and 2008, but that's not because I think the Clintons are bad.

To the contrary, they are very capable and impressive people -- very intelligent, strong debaters, global icons. It may well be that Hillary is the best the Democrats can do. We'll have a clearer sense of that in a year or two. In which case, it would make sense to use the process to nudge her in the best directions and support her in the end.

So what should Brown, who has a great deal to talk about with regard to an agenda of what some would call common sense futurism and the ongoing saga of America's mega-state California, do given these circumstances?

He should be a favorite son candidate in the California primary and retain his option to move in additional directions should events make that advisable.

The 2012 Republican primaries and caucuses showed how performance in national media events can supercede or trump campaigning on the ground in a specific state, especially when coupled with an advertising presence.

The first in the nation Iowa caucuses, for example, were largely fought out in a series of Republican presidential debates, with heavy supplemental action in the form of ads from the official campaigns and allied super PACs.

Newt Gingrich, for example, running what I dubbed "The Big Talk Campaign," was in something of a commanding position for a time. Before he knocked off for Christmas vacation and allowed Mitt Romney and minions to character assassinate him.

To the Big Talk, Brown can add Big Doing and better political sense.

Still, he would be better off, if he still wants to be president, if he were 10 years younger and had two more years in the current sequence.

But things are where they are. It should all be quite interesting.

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