09/27/2010 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why on Earth Would Jerry Brown Want to Be Governor of California?

Why on earth would Jerry Brown want to be governor of California?

Back on that zany '60s TV series The Wild Wild West, the two agents discovered that the governor of California was an impostor, installed by an art collector out to steal state money in order to buy the Mona Lisa. Hey, there've certainly been worse reasons to pursue the governorship of the not so Golden State.

But even though Jerry Brown is an aficionado of Leonardo da Vinci, we know that can't be his motivation. The state government simply doesn't have the money.

Jerry Brown, in this bare-bones ad, lays out a bare-bones message: "Our state is in a real mess."

So why does Brown, who in the latest polling has taken a lead over billionaire Meg Whitman (whom he finally debates for the first time on Tuesday night), his Zen rope-a-dope strategy beginning to pay off, want to be governor (again)?

Perhaps it's the implacably intractable forces he's likely to deal with. Brown has pledged to convene talks for the next state budget within 10 days of the November election. Which only makes sense, since the current state budget still hasn't been enacted. After all, there's nothing quite like banging your head against a wall.

Gray Davis was unable to govern as soon as he won re-election against Bill Simon in 2002. Davis, who I've known for decades, is happier now than he was as governor.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had a longer run, but lately has been hemmed in by the same dynamics that hamstrung Davis. Incidentally, I've been assisting Schwarzenegger in assessing his governorship.

A few years ago, when it became evident that Brown -- California's attorney general, a former two-term governor of the state, two-term mayor of gritty Oakland, and two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination -- was seriously contemplating a return to the office he held as a young man in the 1970s and early 1980s, I asked him why he wanted to return to what I rather indecorously described as the clown show.

He talked of history, of things he'd gotten wrong the first time around, and things he'd gotten right and wanted to expand upon, of the time being right for things once derided as fantastical. He figured, correctly, that Senator Dianne Feinstein wouldn't want to try, and that other Democrats weren't likely to win.

As it happens, those others would have been blown away by the gale force of Whitman's record-shattering spending, the most by far of any non-presidential campaign in American history, though she was just a glimmer on the horizon of potentiality at that point.

Former President Bill Clinton, featured in billionaire Meg Whitman's thoroughly dishonest TV attack ads against Jerry Brown, issued a rousing endorsement of Brown, with whom he campaigns next month, and debunked state press reports of a feud with Brown.

Brown is very philosophical about all this. This year, he's talked of how being governor of California is not a career booster, but a career ender. He's taken his shots at the White House -- in 1976, 1980, and 1992 -- and with Barack Obama in place, knows there most likely won't be another. (Regarding his age, Brown is a much healthier and more youthful 72 than John McCain was. His mother, the estimable Bernice, and his father, the legendary "Governor Pat," who I also knew for decades, both lived past 90, even though the late governor's idea of exercise was splashing around in his pool.) He was California's youngest elected governor, and now looks to be California's oldest governor.

In public, he talks now about a "re-founding" of California in the midst of chronic budget crisis and slow-mo recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, of the need for people to come together and "clearly identify what they want to cut, and what they want to tax. Let's get it out in the open."

He talks also about the nature of California's economy, and what has brought people to California and what has driven the state's long-term prosperity.

The current "breakdown," he says, can become "a breakthrough."

Brown understands, almost intuitively, that this state which has frequently been at the edge of history relies on having the edge economy.

After all, his family came to California with the Gold Rush, certainly the edge of 1849, and the fastest way to real fortune in the mid-19th century.

More recently, the edge has been all about innovation. As governor, Brown helped foster the sustaining high tech surge of Silicon Valley.

California recently passed through a time of Economic Bubble, based on speculation and artificially inflated markets and stock prices. Now we're in a time of Bust. What we need is another time of Boom, based on real value.

As governor, Brown helped foster a genuine Boom, this one based on innovation and technology, with the rise of the computer business in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs and Bob Noyce -- co-founders of two of the most lastingly important high tech companies in the world, Apple and Intel -- were part of his administration. Jobs, a personal friend of Brown's, served on the state's Commission on Industrial Innovation, and Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit, was a member of the University of California Board of Regents.

At the same time, Brown led the way on a new approach to energy, based on energy efficiency and renewable resources. This path served the environment of California very well, and it served the people of California very well, saving massive amounts of money.

This new Brown ad hits Whitman for her budget-busting plan to eliminate the capital gains tax, which will principally benefit people like herself and her super-rich friends.

In the process, it became a policy model for farsighted people around the world, including President Barack Obama, who remains quite popular in California.

Now Brown's original policies of environmental stewardship and technological innovation are fusing into the makings of another economic Boom, in greentech. Brown says that he wants to spur a new wave of technological innovation and create new industries and jobs, that will reduce our dependency on imported oil, reduce our skyrocketing debt, and build a sustainable future.

Brown is calling for the creation of 20,000 megawatts of new renewable power -- 12,000 distributed and 8,000 centrally based that will come in from the desert -- to create 500,000 jobs and set the stage for a better state to come.

He's also pushed hard for stem cell research, so California can lead the way in biotech and biomedicine, and for high-speed rail.

But the leading edge, the next Boom economy that the state not only needs to nurture but has already begun to nurture, is in greentech. Naturally, the backbone of the past economy, the oil industry, is fighting this tooth and nail. They fight it through special interest lobbying, and they have Proposition 23, the oil industry-financed initiative that would do away with the state's landmark climate change program.

Meg Whitman, former national co-chair of the "Drill baby drill!" McCain/Palin campaign, stands with the opponents of a new green economy. She finally said, after endless contortions, that she will vote against Prop 23, but only because she thinks it isn't popular. But she stands for its approach, because she has vowed to do everything in her power, if elected, as governor, to stop California's landmark program.

Frankly, Whitman, who barely bothered to vote prior to being persuaded by her business mentor, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, to run for governor, is doing what the lobbyists who surround her want. They want to halt the future economy in its tracks because they make their money from the old power arrangements.

Naturally, they, and Whitman -- whose only real politics are straight-out corporate conservative, the usual big tax cuts for the rich and end to regulation -- complain about using regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But regulation frequently plays a forcing function for innovation, as we saw with earlier waves of anti-pollution legislation. Detroit screamed about fighting smog in the past -- which Brown pushed during his first go-round as governor -- but made needed technological adjustments and it all worked out.

In November 2007, Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sued the Bush/Cheney Administration to protect California's landmark climate change program.

Government also played a foundational role in the rise of Silicon Valley. The demands of the military and the space program made the integrated circuit a commercial product.

Intelligent regulation and industrial policy have led to past booms and will lead to another, if not stopped by the ancien regime.

This is one main reason why Whitman's old eBay colleague, former state Controller Steve Westly, who was one of the dozens working at the online auction house before Whitman ever showed up, is for Brown. The super-rich Westly, now a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist, thought about running against Brown -- he ran against him for chairman of the California Democratic Party in 1989 -- but decided against it. Now he's a co-chair of Brown's campaign, and looks very much askance on his old colleague Whitman's gyrations on greenhouse gases and green jobs.

Westly was one of Obama's earliest and biggest backers, and serves on what is essentially a national energy advisory commission, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. Like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he says that Whitman's approach could scuttle the state's emerging greentech industry.

Whitman has very cynically tried to confuse voters with thoroughly debunked anti-Brown attack ads featuring former President Bill Clinton, who fought a rugged battle against Brown in the 1992 presidential primaries.

But Clinton, who will campaign with Brown next month, now extols his governorship, saying in a statement today: "Green jobs and cleantech entered the national dialogue only recently, but Jerry Brown was getting things done for a greener economy 30 years ago. As Governor, he helped California become the world leader in wind energy -- and he created 1.9 million jobs. Today, he knows how building the greentech sector is essential for both lasting job creation and for protecting California's environment."

For someone who's been famously mercurial, at least in a rhetorical sense, there is a remarkable consistency to what Brown has done during his various incarnations in public life.

In an echoing San Francisco City Hall rotunda, Brown was sworn in as California's attorney general in January 2007.

I again re-watched Brown's 2007 inaugural address as attorney general and was struck by the four themes in that speech. Brown promised robust crime-fighting, protection of working people, combating of greenhouse gases and protection of the environment, and promotion of "elegant density" for smart, sustainable development.

This is what he said he'd do as attorney general and this is what he's done, at a time in which few elected officials are actually delivering what they've promised.

In fact, those are consistent themes of his career.

While running for governor in 1974, Brown passed the state's Political Reform Act, which took the cash out of political campaigns and established disclosure rules for campaigns and lobbying.

While he opposed the death penalty, Brown pursued tough new laws on crime when he first served as California's governor. He also appointed the most diverse administration in the country and expanded the right to unionization, crafting the first farm labor act in the country with his friend Cesar Chavez and legalizing unions for public employees.

In keeping with what he called the Era of Limits, financial and environmental, which seems to have returned with a vengeance, he was also rather cheap. Brown's frugal fiscal policies created one of the largest state surpluses in history. Which later had to be used to bail out local governments whose revenue was devastated by the passage of Prop 13. And he vetoed some pay raises for public employees. He's the only California governor in modern history who did not institute a general tax increase. And that includes the famously conservative Ronald Reagan.

Brown also criticized the sprawl pattern of California's development.

More successfully, he intervened to change the direction of California's energy policy, to use energy in much more efficient ways for an expanding population and economy and to increase renewable energy. Obama has repeatedly cited the energy policies Brown put in place as a model for the nation.

The polls are slowly turning in his direction, even though Whitman has been advertising for the past year and he has been on the air for only a few weeks.

The Whitman campaign launched an effort to discredit the poll, claiming in one of the most bafflegab memos I've seen in a while that the poll's sample is wildly distorted in the Democratic direction.

Saying he has an "insider's knowledge" and an "outsider's mind," Brown formally announced his candidacy for governor in March.

Actually, the poll has a 44-36 Democratic/Republican breakdown, a mere eight-point edge in a state in which Democrats enjoy a 14-point registration edge. So the poll, unlike Whitman chief strategist Mike Murphy's latest non-serious spin -- so reminiscent of his silly spin five years ago on behalf of the obviously failing special election initiatives he was then promoting as he guided Schwarzenegger to a huge defeat -- is quite reality-based.

Nevertheless, I think it's a bit optimistic on the Democratic end. For example, the new private polls I'm aware of have Brown with a 3 or 4-point edge over Whitman, not the 5-point edge in the Times poll.

Clearly, Brown has survived Whitman's barrage of false attacks and is moving. He should, however, be doing somewhat better in my opinion. That will require ads that not only have good messaging, but that also pop in a cluttered media environment.

Boxer is close to taking command of the Senate race over Fiorina, who has failed thus far to get out of primary mode.

And initiatives to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use and change the legislative vote needed to pass a budget from two-thirds to a majority are looking good, while the effort to dump California's landmark climate change program does not.

How much will the debates matter? It's hard to say. Whitman refused Brown's challenge to 10 free-wheeling town hall debates. She prefers the staid moderator and panel format, in which follow-up is difficult, give-and-take near impossible, and reporters have pet questions that don't allow for consistent exploration of issues.

Nevertheless, four have been agreed to so far, with the first on Tuesday night at the University of California at Davis and the second on Saturday at Fresno State University.

How will they go?

Well, before Whitman dodged Brown's first debate challenge, last spring, Brown told me: "She's smart, she went to Princeton, she can put sentences together."

Even if Whitman is being embarrassed on one of the many contradictions in her purported program, she has escapability in the more limited format she favors.

She'll undoubtedly have some memorized gibes and comebacks from her army of consultants. But the reality will peek through.

Brown enjoys the give and take of public life. Unlike Whitman, he doesn't hide out behind a panoply of perks and a parade of pricey political consultants and lobbyists, all of them feeding policy prompts and focus-grouped phrases. He's almost shockingly accessible.

He just needs to make sure he's not indulging in a stream of consciousness during a debate.

The reality is that it's not a time for beginners, and Whitman has far less experience than Arnold Schwarzenegger had in public affairs when he became governor. Not to mention the fact that she didn't even bother to vote.

This will become even more apparent as the campaign goes on.

What will also become apparent is that Brown knows a lot more now than he did when he thought he knew it all. He just needs to avoid coming off as though he really does have all the answers at last. He doesn't.

He should let Whitman keep pretending that she does. Right up until he stops allowing that.