Analysis: From ideology to pragmatism: The political twists of Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown presents his annual State of the State address Thursday in Sacramento.


(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

To watch Jerry Brown is to marvel at just how many political lives he can squeeze into his years on stage.

The California governor who delivered his State of the State speech Thursday from the Capitol’s Assembly chamber was self-congratulatory but cautious, praising moves California has made to right its ship but warning of the vast needs and demands ahead.

He offered a disciplined list of accomplishments and future challenges, ticking them off swiftly before, less than 20 minutes in, he was done and gone.

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There was very little glory in it. His speech seemed grounded in the realization that governing is less about waving the banners of idealism than grinding through to an acceptable finish.

As he put it, in what may also serve as the operative theory of the current iteration of Jerry Brown: “Ideology and politics stand in the way, but one way or another the roads must be fixed.”

In a short speech with a long view of California, Gov. Jerry Brown used his State of the State address to challenge lawmakers to better balance the cyclical nature of success and setback that has dominated state government for the better part of two

This Brown, who Thursday put on a conservative suit and tie to read his speech, was inconceivable in 1992 when he was storming the country in a black turtleneck — his ranting and ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign spurred by anger and little else.


(And it was similarly inconceivable two decades before that, when he was first elected governor, a youthful icon who barely stepped into the job before he vaulted off to his first attempts at the presidency.)

On Thursday, he sounded like a mayor with a bigger budget, which is exactly what he is if you buy the theory that Brown’s political underpinnings were forever altered by his tenure as mayor of Oakland, a job he won after his last quixotic presidential run. There, he had to deal with the mandates rolling downhill from Washington and Sacramento, neither of which was in the business of lending money if the budget didn’t pencil out.

The prior Brown channeled, 24 years before the current crowd, the angry sentiments that would drive this year’s presidential campaign.

Usually, politicians adjust to the times but maintain something of a personality through-line. That is true whether the politician is a Republican or a Democrat.

Ronald Reagan was always the genial if forceful president who emitted a sense of leadership so pronounced that his party still yearns for it. Bill Clinton was always the triangulating Southern Democrat, yanking his party back to the political center even as he pushed the boundaries in his personal behavior.

Hillary Clinton has always been the prose to Bill Clinton’s poetry, less the rhetorical artist than the practitioner of the possible. And her nemesis in this presidential contest, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has always been the rumpled and iconoclastic presence who telegraphs nearly as much disdain for his own party as for Republicans.

Brown’s long-offered description of governing — that you row a little to the left and a little to the right — assumes a generally direct path to the desired destination. But his personas have veered far more sharply than that.

Indeed, even if the governor was mild-mannered on Thursday, it must grate on him that Sanders has taken off with his scalding invocation about corruption in politics, since that was more or less Brown’s entire 1992 presidential campaign.


“We’re being ripped off, lied to, shined on,” Brown would say — no, shout — at every stop. He would talk about the gulf between rich and poor, long before anyone coined the term “income inequality.”

“I’ve been around politics since the day I was born,” he said then, alluding to his governor father. “And I can tell you this! We are in a crisis! The very idea of America is being killed!”

Brown was, of course, being a bit hypocritical in his condemnation of politicians begging for money from special interests, given that he had been one. Like Sanders has, he cast his effort “not as a campaign but a cause.”

Causes tend to be driven by personality, even ego. The sense Brown exuded in his presidential campaign was that he had all the answers, a posture that eventually divorces the leader from those he wants to lead. Present in Brown’s Thursday speech was a more mature sense that he was willing to give ground, particularly as he spoke of the state’s persistent drought.

“There’s no magic bullet, but a series of actions must be taken,” he said, ticking off a list that notably did not include his long-sought Delta tunnels but for a sole reference to “reliable conveyances.”

“Achieving balance between all the conflicting interests is not easy,” he added, “but l pledge to you that I will listen and work patiently to achieve results that stand the test of time.”

At this point, a year into the last of four gubernatorial terms, Brown is a popular governor, willing and able to flex his muscles on his priorities, holding the threat of the $24 million in campaign money he has left to spend in the next three years.

Despite the national disdain that has greeted Brown for much of his time in politics, there is little question among Democrats nationally that he would have been a strong presidential candidate this year but for his age. Apart from 53-year-old former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the prime candidates who at least considered the race — Clinton, Sanders, Vice President Joe Biden — were all up in years, but Brown, at 77, would have been the oldest.


If Brown’s public life has been marked by giant shifts, it has also been touched by irony: By the time he assembled all the experience that would make him a powerful presidential candidate, he was too old to take advantage of it.

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Not that he has lost the urge to be in the game. He opened his speech by noting that when he first spoke to legislators 41 years ago, his father, the former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was rather surprised his son had made it to the governorship.

Now, Brown said he was “kind of surprised that I’m still here.”

“And three more years to go!” he said. “That is, unless I take my surplus campaign funds and put a ballot initiative on the November ballot to allow four-term governors to seek a final, fifth term.”

Brown said he was joking. But he didn’t look like he was.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker . For more on politics, go to


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