03.05.10

Arnold's Third Term

Jerry Brown launched his bid to become California’s next governor with a twist: his campaign sounds a lot like the wildly unpopular incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger. By Joe Mathews

Californians, meet your next governor.

Let’s call him Jerry Schwarzenegger.

As former California Gov. Jerry Brown officially rolled out his 2010 campaign for governor this week, he was confronted by questions about how a new Brown term in the stateh ouse might be different than his first, an entertaining if unfocused eight-year stretch from 1975 to 1983.

But in trying to reassure voters that he’s learned lessons, Brown looked and sounded like an older, Zen version of the unpopular incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who can’t run for re-election because of term limits.

Brown, eager to show his age (he’ll be 72 next month) will be no obstacle to his campaign, bragged about his physical strength and his workouts. He even challenged a Los Angeles Times reporter nearly half his age to a chin-up contest. (Brown won, doing 12 chin-ups to the 38-year-old reporter’s six). This sort of brash physicality is pure Arnold, who never tires of talking about his 500-pound lifts.

There is considerable speculation that Schwarzenegger, who has been criticized sharply by Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Meg Whitman, might cross party lines to endorse Brown’s bid for governor.

Brown also played the wife card, Arnold-style, by suggesting that his bride, (he married a level-headed lawyer named Anne Gust four years ago) will keep him in line. "Smart people can do dumb things," he told the San Francisco Chronicle this week. "Therefore, you have to be very careful and surround yourself with advisers who can say no to you. And I have one who I sleep with every night." That mirrors a favorite Schwarzenegger construction, in which he reassures audiences that he won’t get out of line because he sleeps with Maria Shriver, daughter of America’s political establishment, every night.

Brown’s channeling of Schwarzenegger this week wasn’t merely personal. His policy prescriptions tracked the current governor’s as well. Brown said he would hold the line on taxes (with the Schwarzenegger-esque caveat that taxes are OK if the voters sign on a specific proposal via ballot measure) and demand concessions from unions on salaries, pensions and retiree health, all of which have been pursuits of the incumbent.

But it was in describing his governing approach that Brown, by seeking to reassure California’s growing number of independent voters that he’s no partisan, most closely resembled Schwarzenegger.

The current governor has declared himself a “post partisan,” and Brown suggested he too would be a man of the middle, using the force of personality to force compromises between the highly ideological Democrats and Republicans of the California legislature. And Brown, like Schwarzenegger, said he could bring such compromise without changes in California’s unusual political system, which requires a two-thirds vote for spending bills and tax increases—a provision that is widely seen as making the state virtually ungovernable.

It is hard to know how much of Brown’s Arnold-style talk is campaign strategy, and how much is a sincere preview of how he would govern. But Brown’s channeling of Schwarzenegger is not entirely surprising.

The two have been friendly since Schwarzenegger entered politics, with Brown often praising the current governor’s efforts.

Brown, as attorney general for the past three years, has worked closely with Schwarzenegger to push back against efforts by the federal judiciary to force the state to spend more money on its prisons. And as Oakland mayor during Schwarzenegger’s first term, Brown publicly supported a controversial maneuver by the governor to plug a budget hole created by a cut in the state’s license fee. The two men also cooperated in a campaign to defeat an initiative that would have amended the state’s three-strikes law.

As a result, there is considerable speculation that Schwarzenegger, who has been criticized sharply by Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Meg Whitman, might cross party lines to endorse Brown’s bid for governor.

Of course, the support of a governor with a job approval rating south of 30 percent is, at best, a mixed blessing. But Brown seems to believe that Californians want Schwarzenegger’s centrist policies (after all they elected him twice) without Schwarzenegger in charge. So Brown is offering Arnoldism as administered by the kind of experienced hand better positioned to translate good intentions into law.

In an Internet video announcing his candidacy, Brown attempted this straddle without mentioning Schwarzenegger by name. He said that California’s effort to change its politics by electing an outsider hadn’t worked because outsiders lack the knowledge to governor. Brown said he himself had “an insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind” that would help dig the state out of its current hole.

If Brown is right, Arnold Schwarzenegger may get a third term after all.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for the Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.