Iconoclastic Jerry Brown Goes Back to Square One

Ronald Brownstein
National Journal

OAKLAND, Calif.—Gov. Jerry Brown turns 75 in April, but time has not dulled his memory.

Toward the end of our interview just before Christmas, his wife, Anne Gust (accompanied by their ubiquitous dog, Sutter), came over to the table where we were talking in a small hideaway office Brown maintains here. She placed before him a class picture from his elementary school that she had found in a box of old papers.

Brown scanned the picture and then dispensed rapid-fire judgments. “That was the cute girl,” he said pointing at one. Then he named four other girls. “She didn’t look as cute yet,” he said about another. His wife listened and then asked archly, “Any of the boys you remember?” Brown rattled off four names of boys he knew almost seven decades ago, while his wife and I looked on, dumbfounded. “I think that’s first grade,” Brown said, before gaining confidence. “That’s first grade.”

Time has not dulled Brown’s bent for iconoclasm either. His political career launched like a rocket: Just two years after he succeeded Ronald Reagan as California’s governor, he became a national sensation during a late, ultimately unsuccessful, bid for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

As a former seminarian who dispensed ethereal Zen pronouncements, Brown’s greatest asset in those years was his enthusiasm for (political) heresy. Socially liberal, environmentally innovative, fiscally tightfisted, and declaring an “era of limits,” he emerged early from the generation of cool and brainy young Democrats (think Gary Hart) determined to rethink conventional liberalism.

But Brown was also undisciplined and unfocused, more aspiration than execution. After a tumultuous second gubernatorial term, and a thumping U.S. Senate loss in 1982, he seemed like a star rookie who quickly squandered his potential. It took him nearly three decades to climb back to the California governorship in 2010. And now that he’s there, as I write elsewhere in National Journal this week (“Where Democrats Reign"), he has essentially returned to square one.

As in the 1970s, Brown is again preaching limits and skepticism of government’s capacity, this time to a California Democratic Party that stands at a historic peak, controlling every statewide office and two-thirds majorities in the state Assembly and Senate. During our conversation, Brown unwaveringly insisted it could all evaporate. Political history, he said, was filled with leaders who pushed too far and inspired an uprising that empowered their opponents to reverse course. “Overreach, that’s what it’s all about,” he said in a tone that conveyed substantial personal experience. “You want to go far enough that you’re doing something good and worthwhile, but not so far that you overturn the apple cart. It’s always unstable.”

Beyond the politics, Brown retains his leeriness of government’s abilities. On education, he worries about an “innovation glut” that whipsaws teachers and administrators. No governor is moving faster to implement President Obama’s health care law than Brown, but he remains uncertain how it will all fit together. “My experts sit there, and they still wonder,” Brown says. “Everywhere we go in this technological society, you see more complexity and issues that are very hard in their detail to be discussed by the citizenry, so there’s a real disconnect.... That’s not good for democracy.”

Although California’s budding economic recovery and last November’s tax-raising Proposition 30 have eased the state’s budget crisis, Brown displayed less enthusiasm for spending increases than for streamlining, rethinking, and implementing. He talked at length about restructuring prison policy and consolidating K-12 grant programs. Nothing engaged him more in our talk than breaking the cycle of higher costs and rising tuition in the state’s public colleges and universities. The model for higher education is “totally broken,” he said. “It requires unending, escalating borrowing from the students. So I’m going to engage the faculty and administrators on examining other ways of having a great university without making the students the default financiers.” In his latest budget proposal, Brown gave public colleges and universities less funding than they requested, and he demanded that they freeze tuition increases, improve graduation rates, and expand online instruction.

Critics on the left and right alike can legitimately question Brown. His caution betrays his scars from the white middle-class backlash (capped by 1978’s tax-cutting Proposition 13) that rocked his first tour as governor, but some liberals quietly grouse that the enormous growth of a minority population generally more receptive to government activism means that California Democrats can likely maintain majority support with a more aggressive agenda than he proposes. From the center-right, eclectic urban theorist Joel Kotkin argues that state Democrats, mostly through overzealous environmental policies, are suppressing growth in blue-collar professions such as energy, agriculture, and home-building that could expand opportunities for minorities seeking upward mobility.

Brown can learn from both of those perspectives. But he also has plenty to teach. Brown burned brightly but erratically in the 1970s, like a neon sign with a loose bulb. Still creative, but much more disciplined today, he is searching for a politically durable and substantively workable governing strategy that could leave a far more enduring imprint on his party—and his state.