This week’s Field Poll showing President Barack Obama’s regression in the Golden State – his 51 percent approval rating is roughly the same as it was in July; his disapproval has climbed 8 percentage points to 43 percent – underscores the obvious: If you want to lose friends, start by directing them to a busted website.
It also raises this question: Once it’s time for Democrats to move on from Obama (This won’t be easy: Just ask conservatives who still pine away for Ronald Reagan 25 years after he left the stage.), who’s the alternative? Will they automatically fall in line, if not in love, with Hillary Clinton (the irony being that it’s Democrats who accuse Republicans of conformist behavior)? In doing so, are Democrats willing to do away with the party’s time-honored tradition of a presidential selection that thrives on drama and tension?
If it’s a spirited debate that Democrats crave for 2016, here’s a suggestion: Try to convince Jerry Brown to give the presidency one last try.
Not that he’s shown any interest in one last hurrah, just as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this week took herself out of the running for 2016 (but not 2020). Brown already has a day job in Sacramento he reportedly likes – and one he likely gets to keep until January 2019.
Then again, Brown returned to that job after a 28-year hiatus. By 2016, it will be nearly a quarter of a century since Brown’s last presidential run (yes, against Hillary’s husband). Besides, the timing couldn’t be better in this regard: America’s presidential nominating process – Democrats pandering to the left; Republicans pandering to the right – could benefit from Brown explaining how a pragmatic approach to governing has worked for California.
So what’s holding back this state’s oldest serving governor from trying to become this nation’s oldest elected president?
1. Age. Let’s deal with the donkey, er, elephant in the room, in the party that reveres youth (Obama, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy all in their 40s at the time of their election). Brown will be 78 in 2016. But in 2016’s embryonic field of Democratic hopefuls, age is but a number: Hillary Clinton turns 69 that year; Joe Biden will be 74. In that crowd, Brown’s more like an older brother than an old man. The backup plan: challenge his rivals to a chin-up contest, or a marathon reading of Ignatian spirituality.
2. Precedent. Brown could dodge the question in 2014, then shift gears and seek the presidency once his next term is underway. Or, he takes a page from America’s most successful one-term president, James K. Polk, and starts even sooner. Seeking the presidency in 1844, Polk made five promises: lower tariffs, install an independent banking system, settle the Oregon Territory dispute, acquire California and step down after achieving the aforementioned. Which he did, in 1848. Brown ran in 2010 on one simple promise: fix the state’s finances. In 2014, he could declare “mission accomplished,” close the books on 12 years as governor, then book the first flight to Iowa the moment he again is an ex-governor.
3. Unfinished business. Only two offices have eluded Brown in four-plus decades of state and national campaigning – the U.S. Senate (he lost to Pete Wilson in 1982) and the presidency (failed efforts in 1976, 1980 and 1992). Perhaps there’s still a fire burning within to right one of those wrongs. But which wrong? For a state executive, the presidency is the ultimate prize; being one of 100 senators in Harry Reid’s dysfunctional chamber is a door prize.
4. He owes it to his party. Just like her beloved Cubs (or is it the Yankees?), Hillary Clinton could benefit from a healthy dose of spring training in 2016, in the form of a spirited intraparty challenge. Especially if it comes from Brown, who could push her on two themes certain to arise in a November election: proof of plans to “paddle left, paddle right” as he has in Sacramento; and in Washington (as in Sacramento), how she plans to cure a toxic political culture. If the debate isn’t as personal as it was in 1992, when Brown attacked both Clintons’ character, he also does Hillary a favor by being a more moderate stalking horse on topics like fracking, where Hillary Clinton has to balance the concerns of her party’s base with those of swing-state voters.
5. He owes it to California. Let’s be honest: a 2014 election with Brown at the top of the ticket will be a low-turnout, low-excitement fare (this state hasn’t rejected a first-term governor since Culbert Olson’s loss in 1942). But if Brown leaves of his own accord in 2014? Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney Gen. Kamala Harris and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer all might compete for the open office. Suddenly, the open primary becomes a lot more intriguing than it is right now, which is Brown and three Republican challengers most Californians couldn’t ID in a police lineup.
Those are five reasons why Jerry Brown makes sense as a presidential candidate. The argument against: the man doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And there’s no greater form of fool-suffering/flagellation than political fundraising, which Brown has been doing a lot of lately.
He doesn’t need the money. But perhaps Jerry Brown feels the need for closure in the form of a fourth and final term in Sacramento – quite a change from the other Jerry Brown, who couldn’t stay away from the presidential campaign trail.
Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at email@example.com.