|Jerry Brown's current poll lead rests on two factors: name recognition and a belief among some Democrats that Brown is a truly progressive politician. Both are not likely to continue to fuel a Brown polling lead. By next August the Republican nominee will have a much greater name recognition, coming off a contested primary that will include a high-profile TV air war. They will be well-funded and will likely have closed some of the existing gap with Brown.
That's where the VA/NJ factor becomes so important. If Brown can mobilize Obama voters with progressive policies, then he will be well positioned to withstand the Whitman/Poizner/Campbell barrage.
But that's a big if. Brown was never as progressive as many Democrats assume. During his two terms as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s he often gave liberals fits by his inconsistent support for their causes. Sure, he signed the law giving farmworkers important unionization rights, and carried forward some high-profile renewable energy projects.
At the same time, Brown demonstrated conservative fiscal instincts. Upon taking office in 1975 he ordered budget cuts across the board, including to social services and schools, resulting in a massive budget surplus. When he and Legislative Democrats failed to agree on property tax reform in 1977, Prop 13 went onto the June 1978 ballot and passed, the surplus lulling voters into thinking the dire predictions of doom were false. The day after, Brown declared himself "a born-again tax-cutter" and set about constructing the basis of the existing system in California, where the tyranny of Prop 13 is unchallenged by Democrats who seek short-term technocratic fixes to the budget that don't solve the underlying problem.
It would be one thing if today's Jerry Brown were more progressive on these matters. Unfortunately, he continues to believe that to get elected, he must espouse conservative ideas on the state's financial and economic crisis. He continues to claim taxes and regulation hurt business and has proposed further tax cuts. He has staunchly opposed drug policy reform and sentencing reform and joined Arnold Schwarzenegger in suing to stop the federal government from exercising oversight over our prisons. Instead of calling for eliminating the 2/3rds rule that empowers right-wingers, he positions himself as a centrist and argues both right and left are wrong. Instead of offering a new vision for the next 30 years, Brown continues to defend the catastrophically failed status quo of the last 30 years.
This centrist positioning is the same playbook Brown ran as mayor of Oakland, where he frequently battled progressives. In short, Brown is unlikely to offer the kind of progressive language and policies that are required to drive a favorable turnout in November 2010 to get himself elected.
A competitive primary could help turn that around. If Brown faced a more progressive challenger, he would have to clarify his positions on key issues facing the state, instead of keeping them under wraps until August 2010. A primary battle will help him keep not just his name, but his vision before the voters of California. And as it worked for Obama in 2008, it would help him become a better statewide candidate (aside from a low-profile 2006 AG race, he hasn't run a major campaign for office since 1992, and hasn't won a major campaign for office since 1978).
If Brown did ultimately win the primary, he would be a better candidate for it. He'd have experience debating the issues of 2010 California against an opponent. He'd have his arguments and talking points honed. He'd have a campaign infrastructure ready to go.
The rest of us would be able to have an opportunity to hold Brown accountable, and get answers to the key questions facing our state. And if we decide we like someone else better, we can mobilize behind them as the candidate that will truly offer change. It wasn't clear if Newsom was ever going to be that candidate, but at least he was talking about the issues that matter, and offered a chance to force Brown to go public on these things as well.
While the bruising, stupid, and self-defeating primary battle of 2006 between Phil Angelides and Steve Westly might give some Democrats pause, the experience of the 2008 presidential primary, and the fundamentally different nature of the 2010 race should give Democrats confidence that a contested primary would build the party, energize the base, mobilize volunteers, and perhaps most importantly of all, would allow voters to decide whose vision they prefer for California: a vision that acknowledges the present situation is a failure and that lays out a progressive path for the next 30 years; or a vision that eschews the future and tries to defend the status quo of the last 30 years.
And even if Brown does become the nominee, he'll be better off having been challenged. Not only will he be a sharper candidate with a better campaign, he may actually come to realize that to get elected governor in 2010, he has to show us where we are going as a state, and stop explaining, justifying, and defending where we've been.