For years, especially during his first two terms as governor and his three almost laughable presidential campaigns, Jerry Brown was, to the press and especially the deep thinkers outside California, a figure of curiosity at best and ridicule at worst.
A Chicago newspaper columnist, the late Mike Royko, called Brown “Governor Moonbeam,” and for years the label stuck. It still turns up now and then. There was fascination about whom he was dating (Linda Ronstadt), the kind of car he rode in (a blue Plymouth) and the fact he slept in an apartment on a mattress.
His runs for the presidency also didn’t do much to help his reputation for quirkiness. In one memorable incident, he engaged movie producer Francis Ford Coppola of “Apocalypse Now” fame to direct a futuristic campaign event televised live from the grounds of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. Everything went wrong, including the inadequate use of chromo-key technology, and it became an apocalypse for Brown’s campaign.
Now serving a third term as governor, after a 28-year break that included a stint as mayor of Oakland, he is older and wiser, and, at last, getting the accolades, deserved or not, that eluded him for so long.
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Perhaps you saw the headline in The Bee last week. “Brown draws rave reviews,” it read. The accompanying story went on to quote the president of a liberal think tank as saying that “progressive governance can work and is responding to the challenges of our time.” He’s also gotten good reviews from the East Coast political press.
Unfortunately, the high praise for Brown is at the same time a sad commentary on the state of American politics generally, since he has managed to build his new reputation on the almost total absence of need for political compromise.
Unlike Washington or many states, California is dominated by a single party. Democrats hold every statewide elective office and also boast large majorities in both houses of the Legislature, a situation that President Barack Obama can realize only in his dreams.
Given the take-no-prisoners philosophy of angry tea partiers, who have become a driving force in the Republican Party, it seems we’ve reached a point in which only single-party dominance can produce a functioning government. Dysfunction is becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
The days when House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, and President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, could enjoy a warm relationship while still disagreeing on policy issues, and sit down over drinks to talk over their differences, have long passed.
There also was a time when legislators from both parties in Sacramento could be seen eating and drinking together at Frank Fat’s. That doesn’t happen anymore.
The attitude of Republican tea partiers, who call themselves “patriots” but behave more like anarchists, was perfectly captured in a comment from Diane Cox of Valdosta, Ga., a tea party activist and one of the 6,000 Heritage Action “sentinels” who pushed to defund the Affordable Care Act, a drive that led to the recent federal government shutdown
“We think gridlock is a good thing,” she told USA Today. “It’s called the balance of power.”
A real test of whether Brown deserves the accolades he is winning would occur only if he lost the Democratic majority in either the Senate or Assembly, which seems unlikely. Plus, as even he admits, there have been several initiatives passed in California to make his job easier, including the reduction from two-thirds to a simple majority of the votes required in the Legislature to pass a budget.
My view of Brown’s third term is that he definitely is more focused and no longer the will-o’-the-wisp character he was years ago, when he had national ambitions and, to put it charitably, a somewhat short attention span. The presidency is no longer a realistic goal, if it ever was.
But it also has been comparatively smooth sailing for him this time around, given the fact of his party’s legislative majorities and an all-but-irrelevant Republican minority.