Bill Clinton Visits Jerry Brown: California’s Democratic Frenemies

Jerry Brown narrowly leads in the race for California’s statehouse. But bringing in 42 this weekend risks stirring up some bad memories. Joe Mathews on the Democrats’ big-name frenemies.

Jerry Brown narrowly leads in the race for California’s statehouse. But bringing in 42 this weekend risks stirring up some bad memories. Joe Mathews on the Democrats’ big-name frenemies. Plus, read the latest on the Brown-Whitman race on Election Oracle.

Can Jerry Brown survive this weekend?

The threat to the once-and-perhaps-future California governor comes not from his Republican rival Meg Whitman but from his fellow Democrat: Bill Clinton. The former president is heading to California this weekend to campaign for Brown. And while most Democrats running for office usually welcome a Clinton appearance without reservations, Jerry Brown isn’t most Democrats.

For Brown, Bill Clinton is a living reminder OF Brown’s lowest moments and highlights his current political weaknesses. Clinton beat Brown badly during the 1992 contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. And here in Brown’s home state of California, Clinton is widely considered a transformational political figure. Brown is not.

Clinton, despite being from Arkansas, may have done more than any other human being to convert California from a reliably Republican state to a reliably Democratic one. Before Clinton won California’s electoral votes in 1992, the GOP presidential nominee had taken the state in nine of 10 elections. But Clinton lavished money and attention on California, both while seeking office and in office. Ever since, Democratic presidential candidates have won California easily.

Clinton’s success here poses a complicated problem for Brown. It’s not merely that the string of Democratic victories in California during and since the Clinton era raises questions about why this year’s gubernatorial race is so close in this Democratic state. Or that Clinton, as an outsider, accomplished more politically than Brown could achieve despite being the son of a popular California governor who served two terms himself. It’s that Clinton’s appearance this weekend offers an opportunity for Brown’s critics and the media to remind voters that Brown himself served as an obstacle to the Clinton transformation.

The back story begins in 1989, when Brown won the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party. In doing so, Brown promised to put aside his own political ambitions and devote four years to party building. Instead, he quit after two years to pursue a return to electoral politics. At this moment, Brown seemed particularly inconstant and indecisive. Brown at first announced a run for U.S. Senate, but then pivoted and decided to run against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

The contest was bitter. Brown stayed in that race as a spoiler long after he lost any real chance of winning the nomination. The campaign ended with the greatest political humiliation of Brown’s career: the Arkansas governor beat Brown in California’s own presidential primary that June by more than 200,000 votes.

Brown didn’t handle defeat well. Brown criticized Clinton publicly throughout his two terms, voted for Ralph Nader for president in 1996 instead of Clinton, and even left the Democratic Party for a time, re-registering as an independent.

Meanwhile, Clinton spent so much time in California that he became the state’s favorite political uncle—a fun, appreciative guest whose frequent visits were much anticipated. (Brown remains the brilliant but exasperating older brother who never left). To date, Clinton has been honored more in California than any state save Arkansas. In Los Angeles, there are two public schools named after President Clinton (an elementary school in Compton, and a middle school south of downtown).

In the process, Clinton has occupied the space of California’s favorite wise man Democrat—space that might otherwise have belonged to Brown. Whether this bothers Brown is hard to know. But it’s undeniable that the subject of Clinton brings out the worst in Brown.

It’s undeniable that the subject of Clinton brings out the worst in Brown.

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The most recent evidence of this came in September, when Meg Whitman released a TV ad featuring a 1992 TV debate clip of Clinton criticizing Brown’s record on taxes in California. It was a smart political move—using Clinton, a beloved figure here, to do her dirty work—though one specific charge in the old Clinton criticism, that taxes went up under Brown, was false.

Brown responded not only by properly going after Whitman but also—unfortunately—by making a joke at Clinton’s expense on two subjects where Brown’s reputation is better than Clinton’s: marital fidelity and truth telling. (Brown is a former Catholic seminarian who didn’t get married until he was in his 60s).

“I did not have taxes with this state,” Brown declared during a public event, adding that Clinton wasn’t always the most reliable source of information. Brown’s line deliberately echoed Clinton’s infamous claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Monica Lewinsky.

Brown issued a public apology. (He tried to apologize personally but couldn’t immediately get Clinton on the phone, he told a press conference at the time). The flap put pressure on Brown to show that Clinton supported him—and guaranteed that this weekend’s Clinton trip would take place.

Don’t be surprised if Clinton subtly tweaks Brown even as he publicly praises him. This at least has been Clinton’s pattern this fall. The former president’s initial statement endorsing Brown praised his recent work as Oakland mayor and California attorney general—while leaving out any mention of Brown’s first governorship, which Clinton had lambasted in 1992. And Clinton’s announcement that he was coming to California to campaign included more effusive praise for the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (an early supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign), than for Brown.

This could be slow-motion torture for Brown, with every bit of body language scrutinized and the media talking about the political events of the early 1990s.

The good news for Brown? Clinton could help Brown rally the Democratic base—help Brown badly needs. And at the very least, the weekend is guaranteed to end well: Clinton doesn’t live in California and, after a Sunday night rally in San Jose, he’ll have to go home.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and co-author of the new book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it.