If the goal is to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to run for president, we’ve been going about it the wrong way.
California newspapers have danced around the topic for months now. But this past week, The Boston Globe ran no less than four opinion pieces begging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to enter the fray against presumptive Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Warren isn’t any more likely to run than Brown, but if newspapers pushed this hard for subscribers, circulations wouldn’t be plummeting.
The other miscalculation: This version of Brown differs from previous models in that he shows no interest in making life miserable for fellow Democrats, as he did with great gusto in 1976, 1980 and 1992.
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In that last presidential flirtation, Brown tried (and failed) to convince his party’s primary electorate that Bill and Hillary Clinton were partners in … well, crime – a couple of money-funneling, ethically challenged pols.
Now, he says the field should be cleared for Clinton’s coronation. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather have less if I were running for president than to have a competitor in the primary,” Brown recently told reporters.
Still, count me in the camp of those still lighting a candle in hopes of a fourth (and final?) Brown bid for the White House.
Two reasons are personal and parochial. I’m a fan of colorful rhetoric, and who has a better vocabulary than Brown, who challenges reporters’ spell-check with such gems as “betokens” and “counterfactual” (those two from last weekend’s “Meet The Press” appearance). So far, California’s lone presence among the 2016 hopefuls is Carly Fiorina, the GOP Senate nominee in 2010, who is more interested in dressing down Clinton than talking up the Golden State.
The more serious reason is that absent Brown entering the race, Democrats will be without a significant candidate preaching his “paddle left, paddle right” philosophy of centrist government. That includes Clinton who, at an event in Washington, D.C., just a day after those Boston Globe editorials, sounded a whole like Warren on the subject of income inequality.
There is a Republican attempting a variation of the centrist approach. That would be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who’s attempting what may prove an impossible lift – sell a general election message (for example, cutting a deal on immigration reform) in conservative-dominated early primary states.
But on the Democratic side, there is no centrist champion. To the extent there’s a tangible challenge to Clinton, it comes from the left – Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, author of a 12-point progressive plan that includes a living wage, ending free-trade pacts and raising income tax rates.
Ironically, there was a Democrat preaching such pragmatism back in 1992 during Brown’s last presidential bid. That was Bill Clinton, the subject of Brown’s angry and populist “we the people” barbs.
Not that Brown would want to be Hillary Clinton’s moral compass in 2016, but his gubernatorial record – tax increases are temporary, spending must be controlled, fracking can be done harmlessly – serves as both a reminder and a road map for his party to break out of its blue-state comfort zone in a brave new political world in which Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot.
Hopefully, Brown will find a way into the presidential election, even if it’s not on the ballot. Certainly, it won’t be as a commentator on the GOP’s inner workings. He’s wrong about Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – unelectable, maybe, but not “unfit.”
Perhaps he could moderate a Democratic debate, assuming Clinton graces a stage with her presence. How could Brown say no to one last chance to interrogate his old friends?
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.