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Jerry Brown ran on returning to what worked; he says Joe Biden can do the same

California Gov. Jerry Brown with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, and predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
(Associated Press)

California voters may have a feeling, when they watch this year’s presidential campaign, that they’ve seen this before — not a change election, but one to change back.

The government was in crisis. A brash leader’s years-long effort to blow up the system and make it function like a business had flopped. A logjammed legislature was flailing amid an economic collapse. Voters were incensed — and sick of all the change.

It was a perfect setting for Jerry Brown, a 72-year old former governor and decades-long inside player in Democratic politics, to reemerge in 2010 to argue that he alone could repair a crippled California after the disruptive tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yet the playbook that seemed unique to Brown and that moment has now reappeared a decade later in the hands of 77-year-old Joe Biden, as he runs his own campaign of restoration against the wealthy anti-establishment disrupter in the White House, President Trump.

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Biden, a folksy straight talker, and the cerebral Brown are hardly political soulmates, even if they are both Democrats. Yet their strategies for turning half a century of their own political baggage into an advantage at a time of pitched voter anxiety are strikingly similar.

“He is the steady hand,” Brown said of Biden, as the former governor reflected on his own 2010 race against Silicon Valley billionaire Meg Whitman at the close of the tumultuous Schwarzenegger era. “At a time of chaos and confusion, a steady hand should be the one people pick.”

Brown, in his own comeback campaign, assured voters that he had the deep expertise and political acumen to clean up a financial mess that left state government paralyzed. Similarly, Biden says his half a century of public service makes him singularly qualified to “restore the soul of America” while addressing a pandemic and ensuing plunge in the economy.

“The general disquiet with government is similar” to what voters felt during Brown’s campaign after the nation’s 2008 financial crisis, he said. “Today, there is a dramatically lower level of confidence, because of the pandemic and economic and general confusion and chaos that comes out of Washington. What’s missing is a sense of public confidence in leadership.”

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Biden, like Brown before him, has pledged to revive what he described as the more collaborative and competent politics of bygone days, when personal relationships could overcome partisanship, and the thought of Washington — or Sacramento — didn’t fill voters with such disgust and dread.

The two men also have taken parallel approaches toward their party. Both resisted pressure to follow a more aggressive, louder course pushed by strategists and left-leaning activists.

“Jerry Brown got some of the same critiques the vice president is getting right now,” said Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic strategist involved in the 2010 California race, and in Washington politics before that. “You would hear, ’Why not a campaign full of new ideas?’ Brown understood people were not necessarily looking for a disruption or change. They were looking for stability and calm.”

Biden has had the same instinct. “The very processes of his campaign reflect that,” Lehane said.

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Biden campaign co-chair Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor who knows both men well, said their campaign approach is one thing Biden and Brown — “who could not be more different” — share.

“They both know that as much as we may yearn for change in our gut, we want someone who can first and foremost deliver results,” he said. “Wisdom matters.”

Biden keeps plodding along, slowly and steadily, on simple themes of integrity and empathy — just as he did amid the panicky days at the start of the Democratic nomination race this year, when voters in Iowa and New Hampshire soundly rejected him. Brown, too, laid low, resisting pressure to step things up as Whitman spent $100 million over the summer of 2010 on a deluge of advertising.

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“She became more of an established impression than I was at that point,” Brown said. “I had the paradoxical benefit of both being the most experienced, but also being a fresher face.” Biden is building the same advantage, he said, as Trump exhausts voters with his constant attention-grabbing and erratic, self-aggrandizing statements.

“Biden is fresher because he’s not suffering the gauntlet of unlimited exposure,” Brown said.

Turning down the volume was not always in the nature of either of these Democratic Party elders. Biden’s garrulousness had been a career hazard over five decades. And Brown acknowledged that his “distaste for boredom, or dissatisfaction with the status quo” sometimes moved him to embrace unorthodox ideas during his long career.

Yet those notions were never integrated into his campaign. Instead, Brown said he adhered to the messaging mantra that served the Coca-Cola Co. well over the decades: “One sight, one sound, one sell.”

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“There’s so much clutter,” Brown said. “There’s so many points of distraction that you must present something very clear and simple and understandable.”

Those who worked to elect Brown in 2010 now watch with bemusement as attacks on Biden for his past eccentricities, gaffes and regrettable alignments seem to bounce off him. It’s familiar to them.

A decade ago, one anti-Brown ad featured a retro LP record, emblazoned with a photo of a young Brown; it spun as the narrator reviewed his decades in politics, and then melted amid the retelling of his alleged failures. The spot, full of timeworn images of Brown, only seemed to remind viewers that he had broad experience.

“It probably helped him,” said Ace Smith, a longtime advisor. “People were looking for someone who could literally walk in and know what levers to pull, how the machine worked, how to fire it up and get it rolling.”

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The Brown of Whitman’s attack ads — with his full head of hair and 1970s attire — looked nothing like the guy who was running 35 years later, Brown said. The ads seemed out of context for new generations of voters, much like the attacks on Biden for positions he has long since abandoned on issues such as the criminal justice system, school integration or relations with China.

Whitman “was trying to say what I did in the past was a problem,” Brown said. “And I countered by saying, ‘I know what’s needed, I have the experience. I’ve been through all these things....’ That really is Biden’s argument.”

During his interview with The Times, Brown reached for one of several books written about him, this one published in 1977: “Phantom Politics: Campaigning in California.” The book is hardly flattering — it’s a searing critique of Brown’s vagueness as a politician.

Brown cited it, however, to dispute the author’s argument that simplicity in campaigning is a blot on politics. To the contrary, he said, it’s a mark of visionary leadership. Brown’s favorite chapter title is “The Elusive Candidate.”

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“People want a big issue dealt with. And the big issue now is, of course, the virus and then the fiscal integrity of the country, and then the leadership that brings people together,” Brown said. “Beyond that, you’re really into the details, which I think will not get all that much notice.”

John F. Kennedy took the same approach, Brown said. So did Franklin D. Roosevelt: “He was promising a New Deal. He didn’t tell you what the New Deal was going to be, but he said it with confidence.”

Trump tapped into that simplicity, Brown added, with his “Make America Great Again” theme in 2016, a pitch that was ripe for that moment. Schwarzenegger, too, as a novice campaigner during the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, simply promised to “blow up the boxes” of state government.

But when government still wasn’t functioning effectively seven years later, one of Brown’s most potent attacks against Whitman was a video of her echoing lines Schwarzenegger had used, spliced alongside clips of his versions. Schwarzenegger’s “outsider” approach that Whitman sought to copy was out of favor by then. Voters wanted a calm, competent insider who knew how the boxes were built and could put them back together.

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Many feel much the same now about the presidential race, Brown said.

“People want someone who can lead them out of this mess, and certainly somebody who knows what they’re doing is a lot better than someone who doesn’t,” he said. “Not knowing is not good.”


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