Divided Democrats look to Brown for lessons

Waiting until nearly the last possible moment, Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, highlighting both the limits of his room for political maneuver as California’s top Democrat and his quiet prominence as a leader strangely suggestive of the party’s national future. 

On the surface, the governor’s late-breaking endorsement has done little to impact the close contest between Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the California primary. Brown’s long-term political and ideological rivalry with the Clintons — at times shaded by animosity — came to a thaw as he touted Clinton as a voter favorite who could beat Donald Trump. But he had “kept a noticeably low profile” in the months and weeks leading up to the primary vote, “reflecting what aides described as the interest he had in both candidates,” according to the New York Times.

“Mr. Sanders, after giving a speech on health care in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, told reporters Tuesday that he was not surprised by Mr. Brown’s decision, noting that governors and other elected Democrats had repeatedly endorsed Mrs. Clinton, a former senator from New York and secretary of state,” the paper added. “Mr. Brown, in his letter, offered strong praise for Mr. Sanders, noting the similarities between the Sanders campaign and the one Mr. Brown waged when he ran for president in 1992.”

An uncertain future

In fact, Brown’s narrow nod — Politico called it “tepid” and “a non-endorsement endorsement” — reaffirmed the sense among influential Democrats in and outside California that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy resonates only weakly with much of the party’s base, raising questions about where Democrats can look for freshness coming out of the Obama years. 

“Jerry Brown’s long roundabout journey into the Clinton camp […] reflects the Democrats’ doubts about the strength of a Clinton candidacy — then and now. In 1992, Brown polled only about 4 million votes and some 600 delegates (against more than 10 million votes and 3,330 delegates for Bill Clinton), compared with 10.5 million votes and some 1,500 delegates for Sanders so far this year. But then as now, there were worried rumblings about the weakness of a Clinton candidacy, even as Bill Clinton moved to lock up the nomination.”

Brown has remained tight-lipped even after endorsing Clinton, declining an interview with the Times on his role as a party bellwether. But Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, seeking to succeed Brown at the end of his historic final term in office, told the Times that Brown’s knack for mixing together the populist and managerial qualities of Sanders and Clinton would be difficult to replace. “When Jerry Brown is gone — and I say that as a candidate for governor, I’m not naïve about this — it’s going to be very hard to replicate,” Newsom said. “By no means am I suggesting blind optimism that we’ve figured it out. He’s figured it out. The governor has proved you don’t have to be profligate to be progressive. He has found that sweet spot.”

Beyond the nomination

The challenge for Sanders — whose fiscal policies have always run far to the left of Brown’s — has been to show that a win in California matters even if it doesn’t get him any closer to the nomination. “A narrow Sanders win will be mainly of psychological value,” New York magazine noted. “Of the 475 pledged delegates awarded by California, 158 are split proportionately according to the statewide vote, and the other 317 are split proportionately at the congressional-district level, with the state’s 53 districts receiving somewhere between five and nine delegates, depending on past Democratic performance.”

“Still, if moral victories are the only ones available, winning the biggest state — and the one with an intermittently justified reputation as a political and cultural bellwether — is as good as it gets. If Sanders indeed runs even with Clinton among nonwhite voters, he can claim that he — and his kind of politics — eventually transcended the bleached wine-track limitations it was initially assigned.”

Golden State Democrats have proven more likely to agree with Sanders than Democrats across the country. “Many of Sanders’ California backers aren’t giving up and still see a chance to influence the Democratic party even if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination,” CBS News reported. “Fifty-seven percent say that influence is their main reason for voting for Sanders now, not because they think he has a good shot to win,” in contrast to over 70 percent nationwide who’d rather he endorse Clinton. 

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