Jerry Brown in the Stratosphere

With every public poll showing him coasting to a landslide re-election, California Governor Jerry Brown is on the verge of completing one of the great comebacks in American history. 

Elected governor of the nation’s most populous state in 1974 at the age of 36, but later a three-time loser in presidential races, he was thought to be washed up before his 45th birthday. In 1982, after eight years of antics such as dabbling in Zen Buddhism, dating rock star Linda Ronstadt, and two failed presidential campaigns, California voters sent him to what seemed to be early retirement with a humiliating loss to the uncharismatic Pete Wilson in a U.S. Senate race. “I will return someday,” Brown said in his concession speech, but almost no one believed him. 

Brown’s second tenure as governor -- nearly four decades after the first -- is proof that if a politician has enough time, he can recover from almost anything.

Since he has a virtual lock on re-election, we’ll skip this year’s campaign and instead analyze his career over the long run, his current policies, and his possible prospects.

Brown was swept into the governor’s office in 1974 during the Watergate election that devastated the Republican Party nationally. The son of Governor Pat Brown (generally considered to be one of the best governors ever), his name helped him win the Democratic primary with bloc votes from minorities and liberals. In the general election, the anti-Nixon backlash vote provided his margin of victory.

Upon taking office in January of 1975, Jerry Brown proclaimed a new “Era of Limits” on spending and the big public works projects that his father was so famous for. His first budget message directed state administrators to strictly restrain spending and to avoid a general tax increase. When critics accused him of pandering to fiscal conservatives, he replied: “I’m not a conservative, I’m just cheap.”

Jerry Brown was the first in a line of what would become known as “New Democrats”: fiscally moderate, but liberal on social issues and the environment. (Other New Democrats included Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.)  

Brown declared his personal credo to be: “Serve the people, save the planet, and explore the universe.” After  hearing Jerry Brown talk about “planetary realism” and sponsor a California state space satellite, tough-talking Chicago columnist Mike Royko dubbed him “Governor Moonbeam.” (Royko would later admit that, for all his faults, Jerry Brown was one of the few Democrats talking about much-needed new ideas in the wake of landslide losses by Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis.)

The first phase of Jerry Brown’s career unraveled in his second term, when he disobeyed California voters’ distinct wish that he not run for president in 1980. (He bombed, and finished last in the primaries.) Californians viewed him as neglecting his job in order to serve his own ambitions while crises grew in public safety, agriculture, the environment, traffic, and education. His controversial judicial appointments (such as California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who kept overturning the death penalty) also caused his standing to severely deteriorate.  He got a reputation for flip-flopping when he first opposed the Proposition 13 tax cut, then declared himself a “born-again tax cutter” after it passed.

Voters refused to send Jerry Brown to the U.S. Senate even after a bland campaign by his opponent Pete Wilson.  He seemed washed up well before his 50th birthday. As Bill Schneider of CNN said: “He went from being interesting to annoying in about three minutes.”

Although he put up a vigorous challenge to Clinton in 1992, he still received less than 25% of the total vote, and few people took him seriously as a future contender.