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Less could be more for Jerry Brown

If he pledged to serve only one term, he and the state of California could both be winners

September 19, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — Jerry Brown needs to perform a magic trick to attract voters' attention. He should be bold, imaginative and startling — setting himself apart from other career politicians.

He needs to produce some fireworks.

Here's my suggestion:

Brown should pledge to serve only one term as governor if voters choose him over political novice Meg Whitman on Nov. 2.

Rather than spending much of his four-year term plotting to run for reelection — as virtually every governor does — he could promise to focus exclusively on fixing the broken state. Do what's right. Let the chips fall. Damn the political fallout.

Handled right — perhaps sprung before a large TV audience during a campaign debate — it could alter the Democrat's widespread image as a career political opportunist.

Brown could cast himself as a committed native son determined to reroute the state back onto the right track. And he would have credibility as an aging pol looking to burnish his legacy for the history books and join his father, Pat Brown, as one of California's political greats.

In addition, for anyone concerned about his age — 72 — it would guarantee that he'd step down at 76.

A one-term pledge would make no sense for Whitman.

Unlike Atty. Gen. Brown, who previously served eight years as governor and has spent 18 years in other public offices, the former EBay chief has absolutely no government experience. She'd need the whole first term just to learn her away around the office.

The one reassuring pledge she could make, however, would be to begin voting regularly if she's elected governor. Her participation in democracy has been dismal.

Polls show that Brown and Whitman are running practically neck and neck, despite the billionaire Republican spending more than $100 million of her own fortune. Brown has spent relatively little, but labor unions have pitched in with some anti-Whitman TV attacks.

Brown is campaigning as the experienced, wizened pragmatist who knows the Capitol crannies and how to knock heads to make government more efficient and innovative.

But many Californians either see him as a mystery — those under 45 especially — or remember him as a self-absorbed semi-flake when he was governor from 1975 to 1983. Not enough recall him as the creative visionary.

And Brown hasn't put much meat on the old bones in the way of specific proposals for righting the state.

"I'm not going to give you any phony plans or snappy slogans that don't go anywhere," he tells viewers in a new TV ad.

"We have to make some tough decisions.... And at this stage of my life, I'm prepared to do exactly that."

I'd like to hear him say how he's going to stand up to the public employee unions that he empowered as governor by granting collective bargaining rights.

In contrast to Whitman, Brown would have the standing among unions to roll back their pensions and benefits and strip the superfluous from state payrolls.

He should be vowing to streamline business regulations — significantly shortening the permitting process — regardless of whether his environmental buddies yelp.

Brown also should be outlining his budget priorities — the spending that's necessary and the luxuries we can lose, at least until the bleeding is staunched.

And he'd sound a lot more sincere in all this if he pledged to chuck reelection politics and concentrate solely on reconstructing California.

Don't misread me. I'm under no illusion that he'll ever do it — agree to serve just one term — especially if it's someone else's idea, worst of all a newspaper columnist's.

In fact, I don't know of anyone else who thinks it's a good idea. There are many drawbacks:

• He'd be an instant lame duck.

OK, but he'd possess a clear voter mandate to clean up the mess. And he'd have the most powerful gubernatorial tools in America: not only the ability to sign and veto bills but also the line-item budget veto. Plus the ability to reward good deeds with judicial and other appointments.

• California can't be fixed in one term.

But a savvy governor could get a good start on the repair. Then he could continue the fight on his own after leaving office, perhaps teaming with another former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

• A one-term pledge might sound gimmicky. Ring hollow. Not be believed.

Possibly. Brown would need to persuasively pitch the idea. It's a good bet people would listen to his intriguing offer.

Arizona Sen. John McCain came very close to making a one-term pledge when he ran for president in 2008. He had agreed, but then backed away at the last moment, yanking the promise from his official announcement speech.

"The pledge would embody the theme that McCain cared only about solving the country's problems," according to the book "Game Change" by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. And "it would mitigate what the campaign's polling showed was his most significant liability: age [72 on election day]."

But McCain's advisors were divided and he finally said, the book reports, "I don't want to do it. And I don't want to argue about it."

Ronald Reagan also briefly considered a one-term pledge when he ran for president at age 69 in 1980. It was the idea of his image guru, the late Mike Deaver.

"It didn't go anyplace," Deaver told me years later. "Nobody else — including Reagan — thought it was a great idea. Others said, 'Who wants to go through all this just to elect him to one term?' "

But McCain lost and Brown is no Reagan.

Three decades ago, Brown preached about an "era of limits." Now, he should limit himself to one term — one dramatic, eye-catching grand finale.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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