Buzz builds for Brown ’16

by James Poulos | July 24, 2014 2:50 pm

Is the fourth time the charm for Gov. Jerry Brown’s presidential aspirationsBrown president 1976? The question may well have more to do with politics at the national level than the state level. Believe it or not, a fresh round of chatter and interest is springing up around the idea of yet another presidential run for Brown.

With a strong headwind going into his bid for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, Brown has demonstrated a few key characteristics that would make him a viable option for Democrats. He’s broadly popular. His base of political power is stable. He’s got name recognition. And he’s not lacking on executive experience.

But that’s just the beginning of the speculation surrounding Brown. Earlier this year, he dismissed a presidential run outright, telling[1] the Los Angeles Times it was “not in the cards” — “unfortunately.” More recently he’s changed his tune, however cryptically.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Brown complicated the picture considerably.

What if?

First, he reaffirmed[2] that Hillary Clinton has an overwhelming advantage going into 2016. “She has this if she wants,” he said.

But then he said, perhaps strangely, that it would be “a little silly” for him to sit on the sidelines if “no one runs.”

Finally, he added that primary races for president are “never good for general elections.” That view is shared in every election year by every party establishment that controls the White House. It’s also evident that, if Clinton did pass on a White House run, other Democrats would take the bait.

Likely candidates range from big-name figures popular with the base, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to lesser-known names with a less activist reputation, such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Even Vice President Joe Biden is thought to hold out interest in a run.

At the same time, Brown knows as well as any inside-the-Beltway analyst that at least some presumptive Democratic candidates would consider challenging Hillary Clinton even if she does move forward with a presidential bid. She’s been beaten by an underdog candidate before — then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

This time around, Clinton is more experienced — but she’s also road weary, and her political brand isn’t as fresh or powerful as it used to be. Clinton’s recent and massive book tour aroused more speculation and scenario-building than it did enthusiasm. Her political machine is unparalleled, but she lacks that intangible sense of being of-the-moment.

If Clinton won’t run, then Democrats will suddenly become very interested in finding a candidate who could quickly discourage others from drawing the party into a protracted, damaging primary battle. Vice President Joe Biden could be such a candidate. But he’s as close as can be to the Obama administration. Given Obama’s current ratings, that’s a significant liability in the general election.

About a third of voters are already saying[3] their vote in the midterm elections this November will be a symbolic vote “against” the president. Handing the nomination to Biden would be for Democrats a bit like Republicans choosing Dick Cheney in 2008. They’d be obliged to run a referendum on Obama’s legacy.

Setting Biden aside, Democrats find themselves short on elder statesmen — well-known, senior, active officeholders. Plenty of younger, ambitious politicos are out there, but whatever their appeal, they lack the ability to quickly sew up a primary race. Republicans will be facing a fascinating but risky primary season free-for-all in 2016, which gives Democrats all the more reason to unite around a seasoned nominee as quickly as possible.

And that’s where Brown comes in.

A long history

The man called “Gov. Moonbeam” by his detractors has seen it all. He first sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1976, then tried again in 1980.

In 1992, he made exactly the kind of trouble Democrats want to avoid in 2016, trash-talking rival Bill Clinton, and winning enough primaries to create a headache at the national convention. There, he refused[4] to accept the party platform composed by Clinton’s allies, instead rolling out his own document. Its central theme? “Our democratic system has been the object of a hostile takeover engineered by a confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting.” 

That’s a message far more resonant with the contemporary political landscape than anything to be heard from Hillary Clinton. Activists on the right and the left have put it at the top of their own agendas.

Returning to serve as California’s governor required a long, humble climb. Now, however, he’s paid the kind of political dues that party establishments require in order to appreciate a candidate’s stubbornness and idiosyncrasies.

Thanks to his long track record, his media-friendly career narrative, and his party credibility in a thin field without Clinton, Brown is beginning to receive genuine attention. A growing share of California commentators, from Breitbart[5] to the Sacramento Bee[6], see him as plausible candidate and a clear alternative to Clinton.

At the national level, cable fixtures like MSNBC’s Chuck Todd[7] feel the same. The door is opening for longtime allies of Brown’s to float his name as a contender.

Former Senator Gary Hart, for instance — another mainline yet atypical Democrat who came of political age in the anti-establishment ’70s — told[8] The Washington Post not to “rule out” his “law school classmate” from days of yore. “If you pay attention to his career,” Hart said, “you see that he does very unexpected things.”

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