Will Bush Save State GOP? Consider the Brown Family

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

In the wake of dismal showings in the last two general elections, California Republicans are searching for a Moses to lead them out of the political wilderness--and they appear to have settled on Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Can a Bush candidacy turn around the political fortunes of the state's GOP?

The front-runner for his party's presidential nomination, Bush has proved he's a master fund-raiser. Early California polls show him running virtually neck and neck with the Democratic front-runner, Vice President Al Gore. That's not bad in a state that has tilted Democratic in recent elections and is central to that party's 2000 hopes.

A June Times survey had Bush running nearly 20 points better than the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, Bob Dole, among California's Latino voters, an important electorate driven from the GOP column by former Gov. Pete Wilson and the party's anti-immigrant stances. Bush was running 10 points ahead of Dole among women, another key voting bloc in the state.

For many California Republicans, Bush's greatest allure is that he is not Wilson. Pragmatists like Bush's "compassionate conservatism," in contrast to Wilson's mean-spirited image. Ideologues are more comfortable with Bush's pro-life views than with Wilson's pro-choice stance. Will the GOP's infatuation pay off?

Flash back 25 years, when Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., scion of a California political dynasty, launched his first campaign for governor. There are some intriguing political similarities between young Jerry and today's W.

Both men represent a new generation of politics within their own parties. Brown's slogan of "small is beautiful" helped downsize Democratic rhetoric long before Bill Clinton and Gore fastened onto the concept of reinventing government. Bush's compassionate conservatism is similarly affecting the way Republicans view themselves and their political destiny.

Both Brown and Bush are sons of chief executives who were ousted from office by charismatic newcomers in the opposition party. In 1966, incumbent Democratic Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. was thrashed by citizen-politician Ronald Reagan. Jerry ran successfully for governor after Reagan retired. Bush may contemplate a similar success replacing Clinton, whose good-old-boy charm helped defeat his father in 1992.

Both Brown and Bush launched their candidacies after a government scandal had dogged the opposition party. Brown's 1974 campaign was run in the shadow of Watergate and, like other Democrats across the nation, he rode the issue of political reform into office. In the aftermath of "l affaire Clinton," Bush says he is running to "give our country a fresh start after a season of cynicism."

Both men got their basic training in the executive branch (Brown was California's secretary of state when he ran for governor). That's where they built their political reputations and high-octane visibility necessary for credible runs for higher office.

Both have siblings who entered politics and who chalked up their own successes and failures. Kathleen Brown won her race for state treasurer against incumbent Tom Hayes in 1990, only to lose the governorship four years later to Wilson. Bush's brother Jeb challenged incumbent Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994 and lost. He easily won the governor's race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay four years later.

Rewind to 1993 to find another Brown-Bush parallel. In a Field poll taken in May of that year, 18 months before the 1994 gubernatorial election, Kathleen Brown led Wilson by a 23-point margin. All but anointed to the state's highest office, she was the darling of the national press corps and was even touted as a hot prospect for the Democratic national ticket in 2000. But Kathleen Brown had difficulty articulating exactly why she should replace Wilson as governor, beyond saying that she was "a woman, a Democrat and a Brown." When she did spell out her stands, she often found herself out of step with California's voters. When the votes were counted, she lost to Wilson by 14 points.

In the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign, the mediagenic Bush, like Kathleen Brown, has set off a strong buzz of inevitability. He, too, has been less than specific about why he's running for president. Will Bush, too, be pushed hard to define himself and thereby risk eroding his broad appeal?

Assume Bush faces off with Gore for president. There's another interesting comparison to be made, this time between Jerry Brown's 1974 Republican opponent, then-state Controller Houston I. Flournoy, and Gore. Flournoy's stint as a long-time Sacramento insider hurt him in the post-Watergate era; today, the vice president's hefty Washington resume is a part of his campaign baggage. Flournoy proved to be a dull campaigner, criticisms now being hurled at Gore. In 1974, California conservatives were skeptical about Flournoy, a moderate Republican, just as Gore's bona fides are now questioned by Democratic liberals.

Yet, after appearing to be a shoo-in, Jerry Brown almost didn't win that race for governor. In the Field poll's first head-to-head general-election measure, done in February 1974, Brown led Flournoy by 23 points; but he won the November election by less than 3%. Disenchanted Republicans returned to the Flournoy camp.

Brown's own tracking polls showed an erosion of support in the last weeks of the campaign. Years afterward, a Brown campaign aide speculated that, if the election had been held two weeks later, Flournoy would have won.

What's the object of this game of comparative analysis? It can stand as a caveat to California Republicans: Don't count on W. to solve all your problems. If Bush goes on to win the presidency, he'll have to lead 50 states, not just the California Republican Party; if he runs and loses, the state GOP bench will remain weak and the party coffers impoverished.

Looking again at the Brown comparison, there is yet another scenario that might unfold: If things don't work out for George W. Bush in the more rarefied strata of politics, the Texas governor can always run for mayor of Austin.*

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