Why Hillary Clinton needs to follow a California dream

June 11, 2014

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about Syria during an event at the White House in Washington

Given the historic enmity between California Governor Jerry Brown and former President Bill Clinton, it is ironic that Brown may have written the political playbook for Hillary Clinton in her possible 2016 presidential bid.

During the Democrats’ nasty 1992 presidential primaries, Clinton and Brown clashed –and clashed over Hillary Clinton — in increasingly heated exchanges. In a one fiery Illinois primary debate, Brown jabbed his finger at Clinton and accused the Arkansas governor  of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.”

Clinton jabbed back and angrily responded, “I don’t care what you say about me, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumpin’ on my wife. You’re not worth bein’ on the same platform as my wife.”

Clinton and Brown attend a rally at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los AngelesBut that was then, and this is now. As the late powerful California politician, Jess Unruh, was fond of saying, “If I’d killed all my enemies yesterday, I’d have no friends today.”

Both Brown and Hillary Clinton have been political players for a long while now and both were highly polarizing figures when they first gained the political spotlight. Remember “Governor Moonbeam?” And first lady Hillary Clinton’s failed attempt to reform healthcare without listening to health care professionals?

It took decades for Brown to shake his image as uber-flaky. But he’s now become the ideal of “adult supervision” in Sacramento — something the state capitol sorely needed after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bumpy tenure as “The Governator.”

Over the past 20-plus years, Hillary Clinton has moved far from her role as “loyal wife” in that infamous 1992 60 Minutes interview when she was moved to insist, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

After Brown ended his first iteration as California governor in 1983, he went on to toil the political fields in the far less glamorous jobs of mayor of Oakland and state attorney general – earning substantial credibility in the process. After Hillary Clinton’s White House years, she established her own political credentials in the Senate and as secretary of state.

In 2009-10, Brown essentially froze the Democratic field for California’s gubernatorial nomination, waiting until the last possible minute to officially announce his candidacy. No other Democrat could gain traction while Brown was a presumed, but not announced, candidate. Not even then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was running with the backing of –yes — former President Bill Clinton. Most California Democrats, however, didn’t mind a quiet primary season. They were busy watching state Republicans shoving themselves to the right.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to a question during an event in ChicagoRight now, Hillary Clinton is similarly freezing out potential Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential elections. However, a few national Democrats are getting grumpy. They may be worrying about the lack of a primary season “dry-run” to allow the Democratic campaign to be fine-tuned for the general election. They should keep in mind that, when Newsom backed off, Brown benefitted from a worry-free primary.

Brown ran as an old pro — promising to restore order and efficiency to the flailing state. Voters had soured on Schwarzenegger, who had sold himself as an aspirational figure to California voters bent on recalling the wildly unpopular incumbent, Gray Davis.

“The state is in serious trouble,” Brown said in his online declaration of candidacy, “and the next governor must have the preparation and the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again. That’s what I offer.” But he also managed to convince voters, as he later told Esquire magazine, “There’s not a difficulty to having an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s mind. The more you understand, the better off you are.”

On the 2010 campaign trail, that argument beat out the contention offered by his GOP rival, businesswoman Meg Whitman, that she had “spent my career in the private sector, creating jobs and delivering results …  Jerry Brown has had a 40-year career in politics which has resulted in a trail of failed experiments, undelivered promises, big government spending and higher taxes.”

(Yet even Whitman’s record-breaking campaign spending spree of roughly $180 million couldn’t make her competitive.

“It looks like I’m going back again,” Brown said on election night. “As you know, I’ve got the know-how and the experience.”

Running to succeed another aspirational figure, Clinton could position herself as the kind of experienced Washington hand that is needed to restore order in the wake of the disappointment with the Obama years and the nasty politics of Capitol Hill. The GOP’s recent attacks on Clinton tied to  Benghazi, the kidnapping of the Nigerian  schoolgirls and Monica Lewinsky, can be viewed as an attempt to undermine her ability to use the “experience argument” effectively — as Brown did.

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at Tesla's factory in FremontThere are also the twin issues of age and health. Here, as well, Clinton can take a cue from Brown’s game plan.

In 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attacked the then-74 year-old Brown during a speech to the Golden State’s delegation at the Republican National Convention. “California made the bad choice by going with an old retread,” Christie told the delegates. “Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown? I mean, he won the New Jersey presidential primary over Jimmy Carter when I was 14 years old.”

Classic Christie. And the response was classic Brown. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little retread,” Brown told a union worker’s meeting. “Not as much hair, I’ve slowed down a little bit. But I have to tell you, I ran three miles in 29 minutes two nights ago. And I hereby challenge Governor Christie to a three-mile race, a push-up contest and a chin-up contest. Whatever he wants to bet, I have no doubt of the outcome.”

Just recently, the New York Post reported that GOP strategist Karl Rove suggested that Clinton may have suffered brain damage from a concussion after she fainted and fell in her home. She spent several days in a New York City hospital and was diagnosed with a blood clot, which delayed her  congressional testimony about the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Republicans may deny their strategy, but doubts about Clinton’s health and age are back as political talking points.

Now, no one is advocating that Clinton challenge “Bush’s Brain” to a Mensa test and weight-lifting competition to prove her mental and physical competence. Attacks on candidates’ physical and mental capabilities come with the territory. Brown cut them off quickly and solidly. Bill Clinton appears to attempting a similar strategy for his wife.

Brown and Hillary Clinton share another political plus — a politically savvy spouse. California’s first lady, Ann Gust Brown, has been widely credited with engineering her husband’s spectacular political rebound.  She has managed his campaigns for attorney general and governor and serves as his de facto chief of staff.

But the spotlight remains squarely on the governor. Bill Clinton may be more of a mixed blessing for his wife. Never shy to insert his own political observations, he could potentially create problems  — as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly with his harsh criticisms of candidate Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary.

Brown has demonstrated that there are second acts in politics — sometimes better than the first.  The “old retread” is doing fine in Sacramento. He has restored fiscal stability, deftly wielding the reins of government — and is now facing a little-known Republican opponent and is widely expected to coast to reelection in November.

This shows vintage wine can go down well with voters who have soured on the new, new thing.  The same sentiment that fueled Brown’s comeback could very well carry Hilary Clinton to the White House in 2016.


PHOTO (TOP): Governor Jerry Brown: REUTERS/David McNew; Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Former President Bill Clinton (L) and California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown attend a rally at University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, October 15, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to a question during an event in Chicago, Illinois, June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

PHOTO (INSERT 3) : California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, June 22, 2012. REUTERS/Noah Berger


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