THE BLOG
11/07/2014 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

Jerry Brown's California, Barack Obama's America: Starkly Different Democratic Realities

Looking at the political shards left over from Tuesday's election, shadowed so heavily by President Barack Obama's sharp decline from his strong re-election just two years ago, we see two starkly different realities for Democrats in the nation's largest state and the nation as a whole.

Obama, who not so long ago seemed destiny's child, now looks like a captive of unfolding history. And Governor Jerry Brown, once derided by the conventionally minded as little more than a fool on history's stage, now seems one of its masters in effortlessly winning a record fourth term at the helm of California, the once supposedly failing mega-state which now, once again, is playing a vanguard role.

Brown, who is at once more radical and more conservative than Obama, has succeeded in pulling America's sprawling polyglot commonwealth on the Pacific back from the abyss and, in continuing to restore its futuristic edge -- the latter being something for which predecessors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis also deserve substantial credit -- by moving left and right at the same time. (Forget Brown's famous saying about the "canoe theory, paddle a little to the left, a little to the right, and go right down the middle." That's the children's version of the technique.)


Governor Jerry Brown won another landslide victory as he claimed a record fourth term as Governor of California.

Brown ended California's infamously chronic budget crisis by instituting budget cuts Obama wouldn't try, beyond those of Schwarzenegger, and tax hikes on the rich Obama wouldn't dare.

Operating in a state nowhere near as left as some imagine and others fear, he reined in the rampant spending impulses of big Democratic legislative majorities while triggering a big shift of education funding for the dispossessed and a vast expansion of health care for lower income Californians.

He pursued a flu-spectrum energy policy of leading edge renewable energy and conservation programs Obama has tried to copy, not to mention high-speed rail and new vehicles, even as he supported fracking for oil and natural gas, and major water development.

There's more, but you get the gist.

Some may say this is new for Brown, but moving left and right really isn't. He's a little more grounded after his very hands-on mayoralty of gritty Oakland and with his fortunate marriage to the estimable Anne Gust Brown, but the thinking is very familiar.

Change comes from the edge of the crowd, not the middle of the crowd. Brown has a stronger grasp on the difference between the edge and the fringe, which isn't always easy to see and sometimes is a matter of timing, than he used to have. And people are more ready for some of Brown's ideas now than they were back when he was called "Moonbeam."

As Obama, well, he lost the plot, to borrow a saying from the Brits, early in his second term. Where is Brown is clear -- or, at least, seems to be clear -- with the public (if not always the press), in what he is about, Obama, for all his many appearances and frequent verbosity, is uncommunicative, chaotic, confused. His administration does a bad job of explaining what it is about in part because it evidently does not know.


President Barack Obama tried to explain away a crushing defeat for Democrats as a result of voters not liking Washington.

Beginning last year, and hurt throughout by the wildly uneven economic recovery, Obama has largely seemed to be careening through his presidency. The astounding online failure of the signature health care roll-out has been more than matched by the nosedive in once high-flying public approval of his geopolitical policies.

With Libya an ongoing embarrassment, amidst global scandal over his massive surveillance and too indiscriminate drone strike programs, Obama shocked the country by nearly jumping into the Syrian civil war, backed into an embarrassing crisis with Russia by backing the overthrow of its democratically-elected friend in Ukraine at the height of the Sochi Winter Olympics (no surer way to infuriate Vladimir Putin), then engaged in months of analysis-paralysis and diplo-stall as Iraq teetered and Isis redrew the map of the Middle East.

By the time the compliant media and opportunistic Republicans blew up an Ebola scare into preposterous hysteria, Obama looked like he presided only over chaos. The legitimate fear factor of a complex and challenging world metastasized in a national culture of ignorance into a cudgel against Obama and his allies in Congress.

While Brown, who spent virtually nothing on his own election, looks at his 59 percent victory and even bigger wins for his water bond and budget stabilization initiatives, sitting atop more than $20 million in campaign funds, Obama is left to contemplate the national wreckage for Democrats.

The loss of as many as nine U.S. Senate seats when all is said and done. Democratic strength in the House of Representatives at the lowest ebb since before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. And a presidency dead in the water.

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