Over the last few months I’ve been making some persistent criticisms of the way Jerry Brown is approaching the budget mess and his campaign for governor. As a progressive Democrat, these criticisms aren’t intended to tear Brown down, but instead to rattle the cage of a sleepy candidate and campaign, pointing out that their present course will likely only lead to Governor Meg Whitman. Which none of us wants.
So in the spirit of not being a critic sniping from the sidelines, I thought I’d lay out what Brown should do – and in fact must do – in order to get elected to a third term as governor of California. He cannot win unless these things are done.
Run a thoroughly populist campaign. This should not be particularly difficult for Brown, who has run these types of campaigns before, most notably in his 1992 run for president. We need to be seeing more of the 1992 Brown and less of the 1978 Brown – he needs to capture the spirit of frustration and anger at the wealthy elites who broke our economy and are now hogging even more riches and power while everyone else’s suffering continues. Anti-wealthy populism isn’t just good campaign rhetoric – it also happens to be the only way to solve California’s budget crisis and revive economic growth. Of course, it also comes in handy when your opponent is a very wealthy CEO who thinks she can buy the governor’s office.
Back up that populism with policy proposals that match. Brown can’t just use populist rhetoric on the campaign trail. He has to back it up with clear proposals that match the rhetoric. Barack Obama’s “say one thing, do another” approach to governance has pretty much ruled out any other Democrat doing the same thing on the campaign trail in 2010. Obama’s failures mean that Democratic rhetoric is going to be questioned by a skeptical electorate unless it’s backed up by an agenda that fits the rhetoric. The next item is where Brown needs to start:
Embrace progressive taxes to fix the budget and grow the economy. If Brown and his campaign team do not draw the proper lessons from the Oregon election then they do not deserve to win this race. What Oregon voters told us is that taxing the wealthy and large corporations is a winner at the ballot box. Voters resoundingly rejected right-wing claims that such taxes would hurt the economy. That’s one of Meg Whitman’s core arguments. That means Brown has an opening to hit eMeg on this issue. And when she predictably argues against taxing the wealthy and corporations, Brown then has the chance to really hit her hard by showing her views on taxes are due to the fact that she’s a wealthy CEO who never had to worry about the quality of her kids’ education or whether grandma will get the health care services she needs in old age. Brown also needs a credible set of solutions to the budget deficit – sitting people down and working out a solution won’t fly with voters. Progressive taxes will. And it works as well with independent voters as it does with the Democratic base.
Involve Latinos as key members of the campaign, and make outreach to them one of the top priorities. During Brown’s three statewide campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, the Latino vote was not nearly as central to one’s electoral fortunes as it is now. Brown cannot hope to win without strong and enthusiastic support from Latino voters. Brown also needs to learn to address their issues. Sure, he helped farmworkers organize and has lots of photos with him and Cesar Chavez – but for many 21st century Latinos, the UFW alone doesn’t count as addressing their needs. Many urban Latinos aren’t farmworkers at all and don’t identify with their concerns. Instead they worry about jobs, quality of education, housing affordability, and health care. Brown needs to spend a lot of time in these communities addressing those issues. His past work with folks like Cesar Chavez can open the door, showing that he’s been a longtime ally of California Latinos. But he has to make his campaign relevant to what they need in 2010, and not assume what he did in 1975 is sufficient.
It’s especially important that Brown do so since Democrats’ edge with Latino voters is beginning to shrink. Those are nationwide numbers, not CA numbers. Last week’s PPIC poll showed Brown with a 53-22 lead among Latinos. But he has to work to maintain that, keep the undecideds, and get his Latino supporters to turn out this fall.
Reach out to younger voters. The Calbuzzers noted that most voters under 30 don’t know who Jerry Brown is (since none of us can remember his term as governor). They also argue that it may not make much difference since 59% of the November electorate will be 50 or older according to their estimates.
Don’t listen to it. Younger voters are essential to victory. Brown has to get more of us 30 and under to turn out and vote than the predictions suggest. If Brown and Whitman are slugging it out over the 50 and above crowd, Brown will increasingly be fighting on Whitman’s turf. Voters 50 and over tend to be the least willing to change the status quo, and tend to be more willing to embrace spending cuts as a solution to the state’s mess. Brown can’t ever match Whitman on that, because she will always be more willing to slash and burn than he can afford to be.
On the other hand, Whitman has nothing whatsoever to offer younger voters. Brown does. Younger voters are deeply populist ourselves, as we see our future being stolen from us by large corporations. Polls consistently show we want better public services and are willing to spend to make it happen, so a progressive tax message plays well with us. Our strong Democratic leanings indicate that we’re natural Brown voters. Brown has nothing to lose and everything to gain by targeting younger voters and making a concerted effort to win us over. It is more difficult to see how he can win without us.
More below, including education, marijuana, outreach to progressives, and the big picture that ties it all together.
Address the education crisis. The impact of recent school budget cuts are only now beginning to be felt. When the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District announced it was closing my neighborhood school, the outrage from my prosperous, middle-aged neighbors was enormous. Those are people Brown would love to have in his corner. The fee increases at California universities and colleges have mobilized an entire generation to care very deeply about what happens in the November election. Latino voters consistently rank education as one of their top issues.
Brown must address the education crisis. He needs to offer a way out that doesn’t follow the lunatic Arne Duncan path of more tests, merit pay, and charter schools. That isn’t going to capture the imagination of voters – plus, it’s going to be close to what Whitman plans to offer (and she is going to make education a key part of her campaign). Brown instead needs to find a way to address the funding crisis, to shrink class sizes again and reopen the schools.
An oil severance tax to fund higher education is one place to begin. A tax on incomes over $250,000 to fund K-12 schooling is another. That matches the progressive tax policy argument to specific, popular outcomes, exactly as was done in Oregon.
Support legalizing marijuana. Brown has not been a supporter of sentencing reform, opposing Prop 5 in 2008. Yet he also speaks out regularly about how much money we spend on prisons. This is not consistent or credible. Brown can resolve this by endorsing the marijuana legalization initiative. It would immediately paint him as a candidate of change, willing to endorse bold ideas, as someone who will stand up for his beliefs even if there is some (vastly overstated) political risk. It also is one of the only ways to get at the prisons crisis.
Start a field operation now. I hear rumors that Brown might finally announce his candidacy and launch his campaign on February 15. That would be about the latest he could do so and still win. Because while he cannot hope to match Whitman’s money, he has the opportunity to build a much better field operation than she possibly could. Brown needs to replicate what Obama was able to do in 2008. Obama motivated activists to organize for him, for free. People set up phonebanks, organized precinct walks, even cut turf on their own, without pay, because they believed in Obama. That saved the campaign untold millions of dollars. Brown needs to try and do the same – even if he cannot match the level of intensity, he can at least have a field operation that does some of the same things. Whitman can’t have that, because her tea party base doesn’t see her as one of their own, and besides why would anyone volunteer for a candidate who has $100 million of their own money to spend?
Reach out to progressive activists. That field operation has progressive activists as its base. The thing is, they don’t just show up out of obligation. Like any other human being, they need to be motivated to do so. Brown has already waited too long to reach out to progressive activists. But he still has time to do so. He has to show those activists that he takes their ideas seriously, that he has genuinely progressive things to offer them, or else they’re not going to be motivated to help – especially when OFA will want them to help win Democratic seats across the country, when Barbara Boxer will be organizing in California to get re-elected and will have a lot of progressive support to do so.
Run smart TV ads and fix the online operation. Brown is likely to spend no small amount of money on TV ads. Which is fine, and necessary. But they need to be smart, clever, nontraditional ads. That ought to appeal to Brown because he sees himself as being all three. He needs to run ads in the style of, if not produced by, Bill Hillsman. His ads need to include him speaking in his own voice – he’s a celebrity politician, so having a narrator in his positive and name ID ads makes no sense at all. The ads need to be natural, look unscripted and genuine.
The online operation needs a ton of work. I know Joe Trippi is part of the campaign team, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. So far Brown’s Twitter feed, @JerryBrown2010, includes too many photos from the family album, and the Facebook page includes too many pointless, pleading “become our 8,000th follower” asks. This is wasteful and just poor online organizing. The campaign needs to bring on board someone who knows what they’re doing online.
Make California Great Again. Finally, and maybe most importantly, Brown has to offer voters a clear and compelling vision of what the next 30 years will look like for California. The status quo is a total failure and voters want change. Whitman is already going around calling for “A New California” – but Brown has a trump card.
He is a last link to California’s glory days of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His father, Governor Pat Brown, built California’s 20th century prosperity through big government and infrastructure. Jerry presided over the beginning of the end of that system and its prosperity. He helped keep it alive by creating a kind of Rube Goldberg funding system that kept the Pat Brown California alive for a little while, but also ensured that it would collapse sooner or later. Jerry never addressed the 1978 tax revolt in any meaningful sense, except to try and stay out of its way. Now that the revolt is dead, it’s time he moved beyond framing his politics in 1978 terms.
Jerry Brown can make a credible pitch to revive the failed California Dream. He was there when it was still working, and knows that urban density, solar panels, and high speed rail are part of a 21st century vision for the state just as freeways and aqueducts were part of his father’s vision for 20th century California.
If Brown can weave the above into a narrative of “Making California Great Again,” tapping into the latent beliefs of Californians that their state’s dream is one of ensuring basic economic security and providing for basic needs so that its residents can follow their dreams, then he has a real shot at winning this. Such a narrative would need to be progressive to be credible, but can be sold in a way that gets at the core values and beliefs of most California voters, even those who consider themselves as independents and moderates.
I hope Brown does it. I want to see him win his third term as governor, clean up the mess he left 30 years ago, and lead California back to greatness. We’ll see soon enough whether he will do so.