Forty years have passed since Californians first elected as their governor a very young and quirkily charismatic Jerry Brown. Back then, voters made a conscious break from the past, choosing a 36-year-old Democrat with floppy collars and a philosophical bent to succeed two-term Republican governor and former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. At the same time, their choice demonstrated a desire for a little comfort and continuity, given that Brown was the son of Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, modern California's great builder and the man Reagan had ousted.
The intervening decades brought growth and wealth, political gridlock and, in recent years, a palpable uncertainty about just who we as Californians are and where the state is headed. A generation after Brown's first two terms, voters followed up the gubernatorial tenure of another Hollywood actor by turning to Brown again, this time not as a youthful and eccentric political riser but as a grizzled and slightly cantankerous pol who directed his philosophizing toward those same problems that have plagued California since his first stint: fiscal imprudence, chaotic boom-and-bust cycles, too little water to quench too great a thirst, the tension between central power in Sacramento and local authority in city councils and school boards.
The older, more experienced Brown seemed like the right fit for the state over the last four years, and he remains the right fit — the closest thing to it, at least — for the next four. There is little in the candidacy of long-shot Republican challenger Neel Kashkari that outweighs the sense of stability the state is enjoying with Brown at the helm. The Times recommends a vote for Brown, one final time for one final term.
There is a lesson in Brown's measured success during his return engagement: Experience counts. Volumes could be written, and perhaps will be, about the degree to which the governor's actions now are informed by his experiences between his second and third gubernatorial terms — his defeat for the U.S. Senate, his spiritual quests in Japan and India, his leadership of the state Democratic Party, his third run for president, his rejection of the Democrats and embrace of a proto-tea party populism, his two terms as mayor of Oakland, his single term as state attorney general. Those things surely shaped him and, in so doing, shaped California.
But he was governor before, and it is that experience that brought a perspective that is unmatched — and by law is unmatchable — by anyone else in the state. Because of the 1990 term-limits law and the accidents of timing, Brown is the only person who could serve two terms as governor of California, leave, grow wiser with the passage of time and then serve two terms again.
Assuming the term-limits law remains unchanged, that Brown is reelected and leaves office in 2018 at age 80, Californians will have no one similarly experienced in the Legislature or in any other office to call upon. Is that a good thing? Each generation must be free to select its own leaders and not be shackled to aging ideas or perspectives. But term limits don't guarantee that the next leader will be young, vigorous or quirkily charismatic, only that he or she will have limited experience and perspective.
And when Brown does leave, then what? His recent success has been only partially examined, so there is little consensus as to what his formula for success is, and there is virtually no one on the political horizon who can claim to be his logical successor. Brown's program consists of much the same things as in 1974: fiscal discipline, responsible stewardship of resources, a recognition that challenges are best managed locally and that government cannot and should not be counted on to solve all problems.
He has plans in the form of trains and tunnels, but the governor's third term has been more about cleaning up past mistakes, made by his successors and predecessors and perhaps by himself, than in setting a bold new course. The challenge for him and for Californians is to find in his fourth and final term — and he is almost universally expected to win — more than just a generation's final benediction. The state needs a direction for the future.
That need has been unmet by Kashkari, who has tried to navigate between the national GOP, which seems increasingly alien here, and those independents who are hungry for that vision of a new California — the one that recent Silicon Valley-oriented Republican candidates such as Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner and Carly Fiorina tried unsuccessfully to offer voters.
Kashkari has perhaps done his best, but his strongest arguments seem to be that in one situation or another, Jerry Brown is not sufficiently, well, Jerry Brown. How could someone so notoriously parsimonious, Kashkari asks, be so intent on spending so much money on a bullet train through the Central Valley and on massive water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta?
The answer does not fall in Kashkari's favor: If even Brown believes some major debt, expenditure and construction are necessary for California to be sustainable, he may be on to something.
There is also in Brown a phenomenon that may be particular to him: Although he symbolized California's post-Reagan lane change, his positions on spending, the role of government and environmental protection are much like Reagan's when he was governor, although packaged in a way to be palatable to Democrats. Both governors tapped into the state's contradictions. Other candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, have tried to do the same, but so far none — not Kashkari, not anyone lining up to run in 2018 — seems to have succeeded.