Should Brown Have Taken His Own Advice?

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

It's impossible to resist taking Governor Jerry Brown's Sunday network news interview, and the advice he offered a fellow Democrat in the White House, and viewing it through the prism of the campaign he ran for governor in 2010.

And when doing so, it becomes clear that Brown is urging President Barack Obama to do pretty much exactly the opposite of what he himself did on the campaign trail just a few months ago: be specific.

"He has to lay out a clear alternative and run a risk that it may not work out for him," Brown told CNN's Candy Crowley in an interview for State of the Union taped in San Francisco last week. "Maybe the truth cannot be spoken in a way that makes it a successful campaign."

Brown was opining on what President Obama must do in the 2012 election cycle. But with every word, it was hard not to wonder whether the governor could himself have offered a dose of tough love for the electorate he so carefully courted in 2010.

Roll back the clock and you'll find news report after news report that said then candidate Brown refused to delve into many (if any) specifics of how he'd resolve California's most vexing problem: the chronic mismatch between state government revenues and expenses.

To be fair, Governor Brown did lay out a few things in which he believed: more truth telling about the magnitude of the state's problems, a protection of education funding, and no additional taxes without a vote of the people. But that left out an awful lot, like how he would prioritize spending... or whether he'd advocate additional tax revenues... or where he'd cut spending.

"The plan is the process," Brown famously said in a TV interview in the summer of 2010 when asked about when he'd lay out a plan of detailed choices for the voters. In a private event earlier that same month, Brown was asked by a group of tech leaders for specifics on his plans for economic growth.

"How do you do things without the money? It's very difficult, but I have a plan. I'll tell you after the election," he said to a chorus of laughter.

In his CNN interview -- his first network sit-down and one of the only such chats he's done with any reporter since taking office in January -- Brown urged Obama to lay it all out in the open when discussing the nation's fiscal challenges:

"I think the only way out of that is going to be a very vigorous election, where people lay out the stark alternatives, not muffle it like politicians like to do, kind of, you know, smooth out the rough edges."

Governor Brown himself seemed to "smooth out the rough edges" in 2010 on the issue of taxes, continually declining to say whether he'd advocate additional tax revenues to erase what would later become a $26 billion budget hole. As we know, he ultimately did push a tax package, one which was staunchly rejected by Republicans in the Legislature.

On Sunday, he made it clear that he thinks talking about taxes is a campaign disaster. "I wouldn't quite put it in those terms, " said Brown. "That, we know from Mr. Mondale, is a big fat loser." The reference, of course, is to 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale's attempt to dish some tough love during a race in which he was ultimately trounced by President Ronald Reagan. And it's hard not to imagine that popping into the governor's head every time that he was asked about taxes in 2010 by reporters covering the campaign.

Of course, the real world political answer to the question -- should Jerry Brown have taken his own advice back in 2010 -- is no. After all, he beat GOP challenger Meg Whitman by a pretty sizable amount even without such unpleasantries. But ever since, Brown has continually tried to get someone, anyone, to address the fundamental dilemma: how much government is worth paying for?

On Sunday, he told Crowley that his recently signed budget plan is struggling on at least one front: a waiver from the feds to cut into spending on health care for the poor. The budget Brown signed on June 30 proposes a $1.4 billion cut to Medicaid services (administered here as part of the state Medi-Cal program). Just last week, the feds got an earful from health care advocates urging them to reject the request. And those critics may be winning.

"We, so far, are not getting anywhere" with the Obama administration on the issue, said the governor.

Which raises a question similar to the one posed at the outset: if the state's budget plan starts to unravel, will Governor Brown go back and lay out -- as he calls it -- the "stark choices" faced? And had he laid them out in 2010, would he have paved the way for a different budget outcome this year... or... would he now be home sitting on the sidelines?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • R

    Brown is right. He speaks the truth. Obama is trying to speak it, but the GOP are so intent on destroying him, as they destroyed Clinton before him, that they (with the help of Fox News) are muddying the end message which the electorate get to finally hear. If we had a media organization unvarnished and courageous enough to put out the entire, clear, truthful message (like Public Broadcasting), then maybe the people would actually get to finally hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and would thus finally realize that, yes, you do need to raise revenues in order to pay for services. It is obvious. Everyone in their right mind knows this; everyone but the insane Republicans.

  • Jennifer Burgess

    Obama wouldn’t know the truth if it whacked him on the head.

    The Democrats are so busy trying to pretend the Republicans are ignoring the will of the people that they forget half the people are conservative. This is not a nation of wild-eyed liberals, there is more than one side to this issue.

    The difference between Republicans and Democrats is pretty fundamental – it comes down whether or not you believe government can solve all your problems. Given the horrible mess we’ve increasingly been in over the last 50 years (during which, unsurprisingly, government has been almost consistently growing out of control) I think the answer to that is a resounding no.

    But whether you believe that or not, it also comes down to this: Republicans want people to take care of themselves, Democrats want government to take care of them.