Jerry Brown’s career serves as a four-decade testament to the idea that politics is a means to a means. Every time he gains an office, he almost immediately sets out to parlay it into a new one.
Which is why the prospect of his return (after a 28-year absence) to California’s governorship next year is so fascinating. At 72 years old, he’ll be too old to shoot for a higher office. For the first time in his life, he’ll have to devote himself entirely to the job he was elected to.
Just consider Brown’s career to date.
At 32 years of age, he won election in 1970 as California’s secretary of state—and promptly set about positioning himself for the governor’s race in 1974, which he won. He then held the governorship for eight years, during which time he thrice sought higher office—the presidency in 1976 and 1980 and a U.S. Senate seat in 1982.
That Senate race was designed to put Brown in position for the 1988 presidential race, but Californians had tired of his restless spirit and chose Republican Pete Wilson over him. Brown then spent the 1980s consorting with Mexican philosophers, studying Buddhism in Japan and working with Mother Teresa in India.
When he returned, he was elected chairman of the California Democratic Party in 1989—a post he abandoned midway through his term to pursue the Senate seat that Alan Cranston was giving up in 1992. Again, Brown figured that a Senate stint would put him in position for another White House bid, but by the summer of 1991, with George H. W. Bush’s post-Gulf War glow scaring off every big-name Democrat, he sensed an opening, quit the Senate race and jumped into the presidential contest.
The ’92 campaign had its moments for Brown—an stunning upset win in the Connecticut primary followed by a two-week one-on-one campaign with Bill Clinton in New York in which Clinton’s fate hung in the balance—but Brown’s crusading anti-establishment message and refusal to yield to Clinton until the very end made him a fringe figure in the national Democratic Party.
So he went back to basics and in 1998 won an office no one else seemed to want, the Oakland mayoralty. He used it to re-establish himself as a credible and relevant public figure, ultimately parlaying it into a victory in the 2006 race for California attorney general. And practically from the moment he took over as A.G., Brown has been positioning himself for the 2010 governor’s race, a wide-open affair with term limits forcing Arnold Schwarzenegger out.
After a decade of political rehab, Brown is sitting pretty. A formidable rival, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has opted out of the ’10 race, and Dianne Feinstein, easily the most popular Democrat in the state, seems less likely to run by the day. That leaves (for now, at least) Brown and Gavin Newsom, the upstart San Francisco mayor who is mainly identified with gay marriage, and a poll released earlier this week put Brown ahead by 20 points, 46 to 26 percent.
It’s possible that Brown’s bid will fail. Newsom has yet to introduce himself to much of the state and he will no doubt play on his youth and energy to try to turn the race into a choice between the future and the past. Plus, Loretta Sanchez, a seven-term Democratic congresswoman from Southern California, is threatening to enter the race—a development that would disproportionately hurt Brown, who has more support among Hispanics than Newsom does.
And even if Brown does secure the nomination, there’s still the general election to worry about. Several potentially attractive Republicans, including former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and moderate former Congressman Tom Campbell, are running, and the Democratic nominee—whether it’s Brown, Newsom or anyone else—won’t have George W. Bush and the Evil Republican Congress to rail against.
Still, of all of the candidates from both parties, Brown’s odds of emerging as California’s next governor are the best.
So if he does win, then what?
The last time Brown was elected governor, in 1974, he set off to run for president just 14 months after being sworn in. He did the same thing again after winning reelection in 1978. For Brown, the main appeal of a major office—the governorship or a Senate seat—has always been the opportunity to run for president that comes with it.
But there will be no more presidential campaigns. Sure, there’s no official maximum age for the presidency, but the public has its limits—and both Bob Dole, at 73 in 1996, and John McCain, 72 years old last year, were brushing up against them when they ran. Brown would be 74 in 2012, which would really be pushing it. Of course, a campaign in ’12 is probably out of the question anyway, with Barack Obama running for reelection, which means Brown would actually be 78 the next time he could run. And that’s just too old to be a serious contender.
That means that, if he’s elected next year, Brown will really have no choice but to focus entirely on the job at hand. And what a job it is: California is so broke that it’s now issuing IOUs. And there may not be much any governor can do about it, with tax hikes requiring a two-thirds vote and interest groups routinely taking advantage of the state’s generous referendum rules to hogtie elected officials. California’s gigantic size and diversity don’t help much, either.
Brown is a curiously compelling figure. When he announced his ’92 presidential campaign, he made reference to both Field of Dreams and Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel. He’s always seemed more suited to the campaigning side of politics, where brash talk, bold ideas and constant self-reinvention can all be beneficial. But after nearly 40 years of watching The Jerry Brown Show, we may in 2011 finally get to see the man try, with all his might, to govern.