If he weren’t the nation’s oldest governor, a ripe 75, Jerry Brown would automatically be counted among serious Democratic candidates for president in 2016.
He boasts a household name, an impressive list of accomplishments in the country’s most populous state — a state some once deemed ungovernable — glowing national media coverage and a deep familiarity with the pitfalls and rigors of a White House bid, having run three times before.
Now, some are pushing Brown to consider another try for the White House, even if it means taking on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the prohibitive, if still undeclared, Democratic favorite.
“I think Jerry is precisely what America needs,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, the leader of a national nurses union and a strong political ally of Brown. “He has the courage of his convictions, which we haven’t seen in a very long while.”
Brown, who is up for reelection in 2014, has not yet stated his intention to seek another term, though he has raised millions of dollars for what would appear to be an easy campaign.
Asked if Brown would categorically rule out another presidential bid in 2016, a spokesman, Jim Evans, referred to a statement Brown made in May at a California Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Citing his past primary victories, Brown said “time is kind of running out on that.”
“I guess I’ll just have to stay and do the work of being the governor, which I actually enjoy because I have some perspective that I didn’t used to have,” Brown said.
The famously Delphic governor often leaves people guessing about his motivation and intentions, which leaves plenty of leeway ahead of 2016. Absent a clear-cut statement of disinterest from Brown — who sought the White House in 1976, 1980 and 1992 — some see familiar signs of a presidential-candidate-in-waiting.
The governor has widely touted California’s comeback and his record as a model for the rest of the country and, especially, a dysfunctional Washington, D.C. With support from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature — and a combination of spending cuts and voter-approved tax hikes — Brown has brought the state’s deficit-ridden budget under control, overhauled the education finance system to benefit poorer students, pushed through major environmental initiatives and reaped the benefits — job growth, an improved housing market — of a slow but steady economic recovery.
“Things happen in California that are not happening in Washington,” Brown said during an October appearance at an electric-vehicle expo in San Francisco. “We can do a lot of things in California to shift the [political] climate throughout the whole country.”
In a victory lap a few weeks later, he traveled to the nation’s capital and ticked off the bills he had signed, including immigration-friendly legislation and laws promoting green energy. “We didn’t wait for the federal government,” he crowed.
At the same time, Brown has established himself as a moderating force in Sacramento, pushing back against liberals on issues such as gun control and business regulation, which, to some, suggests an effort to shed the kooky Left Coast image of his first time as governor, more than 20 years ago, and craft a more centrist profile ahead of 2016.
“Every move he’s making is the move of a presidential candidate,” said Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, who has run several times himself and would like to see Brown make another try for the White House in two years. “It’s almost a blueprint.”
Brown was the last Democrat standing in the 1992 race against Bill Clinton, and their competition grew unusually personal and nasty, heightening the drama of a prospective 2016 campaign.
Brown repeatedly attacked Clinton’s character and ethics, took after Hillary Rodham Clinton for her work with a prominent Arkansas law firm while her husband was governor — ”You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Bill Clinton said in a finger-wagging debate exchange — and carried his fight to the party’s national convention long after it was clear Clinton would be the nominee.
Brown never explicitly endorsed Clinton’s candidacy and remained a thorn once Clinton became president, opposing the Northern American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform and other Clinton administration initiatives. Still, Clinton backed Brown's 2010 campaign for governor, even ignoring a swipe about Monica Lewinsky, for which Brown quickly apologized.
The two are by no means close, however, either personally or politically.
While Brown has done nothing to fuel the competition, some would welcome his candidacy as a way to stop what Nader called the “coronation” of Hillary Rodham Clinton by the Democratic Party establishment. Others unhappy with Clinton had their hopes invested in freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who they consider less beholden to Wall Street, but she has vowed not to run in 2016.
“I want to see more competition,” said Nader, who opposes Clinton’s nomination for its dynastic overtones, among other reasons. “Let a hundred flowers bloom.”
Clinton has traveled the country extensively since stepping down as secretary of state in February, boasts a vast fundraising network and has a small army of volunteers ready to work on her behalf. But she has not formally committed to the race.
Absent a Clinton bid, the Democratic contest would break wide open and many believe Brown would be much more inclined to run, trading on his high name-recognition, status as a Washington outsider and achievements in Sacramento.
His age, however, would doubtless be an issue. If elected, Brown would be 78 at his swearing-in, making him by far the oldest first-term president in the nation’s history. Brown does have longevity in his family; at his 2011 inauguration he introduced his 99-year-old aunt and joked about his strong health and good genes. Still, he is more than nine years older than Clinton and more than four years older than Vice President Joseph Biden, another Democrat who may take a look at the race.
Running would also put at risk the positive legacy Brown has painstakingly built over the past few years, which displaced the snickering portrayals that followed him after his tumultuous years as governor and tilting at the White House.
“There’s a building perception in California and the national media that Jerry Brown has made significant progress here in California,” said USC’s Dan Schnur, a political analyst and former aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “If he ran and came up short, he’d be remembered much more for those four presidential campaigns than any policy achievements that he accomplished as governor.”