If Jerry Brown had a happy Thanksgiving following forecasts of big California budget surpluses for the rest of the decade, and he did, he may be having an even more thankful holiday season this time around. Not only is he massively favored for the re-election campaign for an historic fourth term as governor of California, which he, in his inimitable fashion, has not yet announced, he is even being touted for president.
As someone who was involved in various ways in each of Brown's three previous presidential campaigns, I have some thoughts about that. For each campaign had its own unique flavor, yet each, for all the differences, was the same. This is because Jerry Brown is much like the frequently regenerating Doctor in Doctor Who, who is 900 years old and in a sense timeless yet forever youthful and forward looking. Which of course speaks to the issue of Brown's age, the only reason he hasn't been touted for president again before now.
But first to the things which make the presidential chatter possible.
On Brown's list of things to be thankful for:
* Budget recovery sinks in. After struggling for the first two years of his governorship with a chronic state budget crisis that amounted to a $27 billion deficit when he was sworn in, Brown finally changed the game in November 2012 with the smashing victory of his Proposition 30 tax-hike initiative. That new revenue, coupled with big cuts he had enacted earlier, set the groundwork for what forecasters say is now a vista of multi-billion budget surpluses for the rest of this decade.
* Glowing profiles, touting Brown's success -- quite like what I was writing all along -- abound in most quadrants of the media universe. That includes a strong New York Times profile of First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown, who as Jerry's focusing partner in all this has been absolutely essential to the success. There's no precedent in California history for this dynamic duo's partnership in running the state and I'm pretty sure there's been nothing like it in America.
* Big campaign war chest. Brown has put together around $20 million for the re-election run he hasn't announced. That includes the take from a $2 million backyard Hollywood funder last month chaired by a host of top filmmakers and executives and featuring the world's biggest movie star, Robert Downey Jr. Once a wildly talented but troubled young actor with a political bent -- I'm just out of frame in the glowing Central Park interview he does with Brown in his jumbled documentary on the 1992 presidential campaign The Last Party -- RDJ is an old Brown friend. Anchoring a couple of global franchises now as Tony Stark/Iron Man, lead Avenger, and, oh yes, Sherlock Holmes, Downey decidedly has his act together. As does the guy he appeared with.
* Progressive program plaudits. With the gridlock in Washington, Brown has been taking bows for signing into law a progressive agenda on economic, social, education, and environmental matters. Of course, the big new Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the legislature certainly help. But they might not exist without voters feeling that Brown can keep things from getting too exuberant.
* Reining in excesses and keeping things more moderate. Much as they dislike the Republicans' hard right agenda in California, swing voters fear that Democrats, given their heads, will go too far in the other direction. Brown is, as he frequently puts it, "the governor" on that potential excess. So this year, notwithstanding multiple wins for the left, only one bill on the state Chamber of Commerce's top job-killer list was signed into law.
* New energy. Brown was the main pioneer on renewable energy and energy efficiency polices in the '70s and '80s. His former chief of staff Gray Davis renewed that path when he became governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned it into a super-highway during his governornship. Now Brown is wearing Arnold's cowboy boots in moving all that forward, going in the same direction his moccasins first laid out nearly 40 years ago.
But this time Brown is pursuing a full-spectrum energy agenda, allowing and regulating fracking activity in developing oil and natural gas resources which appear to lie in abundance beneath much of central California while studies continue. The reality is that fracking is nothing new in California. I first saw it some 30 years ago in a part of the state which has yet to collapse into the hellish conditions that vehement fracking opponents insist will happen. Opponents, including some former Brown aides and advisors, insist also that Brown's leadership against climate change is inconsistent with allowing fracking because all fossil fuel development is bad. Well, we are going to keep using fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. The question is whether it is better for those fuels to come from, say, the middle of California than from the the Middle East. And whether California should reap a bonanza in the process which just might make many things more possible in the Golden State. Assuming, of course, that further research does not indicate the worst from fracking.
* New transportation. Brown is pushing the transition to new and cleaner vehicles run on alternative power. He continues to push high-speed rail, too. Despite a lower court setback, the project continues to move forward.
* Climate change agreements. Brown is implementing the landmark climate change program enacted by Schwarzenegger. That includes pulling together a successful cap and trade market, despite many legal challenges. And he's taken another leaf out of the Arnold notebook in pursuing cooperative agreements with other states and international entities as part of the anti-greenhouse gas alliance. Of course, that was clearly in his DNA. Brown after all is a two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, and was not infrequently accused of trying to conduct elements of his own foreign policy the first time he was governor.
* Recovering economy. Is Brown directly responsible for the serious uptick in economic activity in California, which includes nearly a one-third drop in the unemployment rate since he took office? That would be no. There are many factors at play in how a state part of a national and global economy fares. But Brown's success in ending California's chronic budget crisis
has certainly helped with confidence and his policies have pushed things along.
* Persistent public pension problems. One big fly in the ointment, however, is the public pension and retirement benefits system in California's state and local governments. Put plainly, the state and many local governments have made commitments that look awfully under-funded going forward. Some local governments are already finding that they are spending heavily on public employee retirements while cutting back on services to taxpayers.
This, needless to say, is not a formula for long-time success, either fiscal or, ultimately, political. While quite a few of his labor and Democratic allies prefer to imagine otherwise, Brown is very aware of this looming problem for the future. He's gotten some needed changes made, but this is a long-term problem nowhere near being solved.
There are some other problems out there, such as opposition to his water conveyance program, setbacks for high-speed rail in a lower court ruling and the federal bureaucracy due to kamikaze opposition and some weak leadership from the Obama Administration, and pushback to his big changes on education funding, redevelopment, and prison realignment, but the pension issue is the one with the most profound implications.
Yet it is not one of his making, and the only real problems likely to emerge for the rest of this decade are at the local level.
Meanwhile, there is that certain buzz surfacing in the media about Brown for President in 2016, including in a Los Angeles Times article which, rather intriguingly, brandished quotes from Ralph Nader and nurses union leader Rose Ann DeMoro after promising interest from Brown advisors. Not that Nader is the tops in political prognostication. When I was considering helping his 2000 presidential bid, he told me that he had no concern about any potential spoiler effect on Al Gore's candidacy because Gore would easily defeat George W. Bush.
But just because Nader is no political seer doesn't mean there isn't something to it. Hillary Clinton, as I wrote very early on, is a prohibitive favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. She is freezing and/or clearing the field, with the left's favored candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, saying she won't go.
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 for a relative unknown in Iowa for what is today chump change and parlay that into a victory a week later in New Hampshire are now a fond memory, there is a way for an insurgent who is already a big name to make a very big splash in this race.
But the holidays are now nearly upon us. So I will leave my exploration of Brown for President 4.0 for a time after Santa has departed.