Jerry Brown’s Long, Strange Trip to a Clinton Peace

Endorsement comes after a quarter century of acrimony

Jerry Brown was a thorn in Bill Clnton's side in the 1992 presidential primaries. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Parker Media)
Jerry Brown was a thorn in Bill Clnton's side in the 1992 presidential primaries. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Parker Media)
Posted June 1, 2016 at 5:00am

The captain of the duct tape brigade appears to have found his inner political peace.  

Jerry Brown, the current and former governor of California, has decided a capstone to his political career will be casting his lot with the Clintons, a quarter century after positioning himself among the early Democratic standouts in the dark arts of driving them to distraction.  

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Brown was to Bill Clinton in 1992 what Bernie Sanders is to Hillary Clinton in 2016 — always trailing, but never failing to scold the front-runner for the nomination, tossing nettlesome anti-establishment liberal barbs that delayed his insider rival’s path toward the reconstruction of party unity.  

“The prince of sleaze,” Brown dubbed the Arkansas governor back then, an epithet Sanders has never come close to matching while working to derail the former secretary of state’s campaign.


 

But perhaps the most melodramatic move Brown has ever orchestrated came at the start of the 1992 Democratic convention in New York, when he instructed his 600 delegates to press for an open and competitive gathering — at least until he could secure a prime-time speaking slot without his having to first promise he’d endorse the guaranteed nominee.  

Coincidentally, the first place his refusal to yield manifested itself was at a California delegation meeting where Hillary Clinton was the featured speaker. The diehards rang cowbells, blew police whistles and chanted out “Let Jerry speak” — many of them shouting through mouths they’d covered with duct tape.  

And the candidate’s wife was ready with a characteristic riposte: “You know, I’ve never known Jerry not to speak when he wants to speak. He’s always speaking, near as I can tell.”  

Now, of course, she is only too happy to have Brown speak out on her behalf ahead of the California primary, where some polls suggest she’s in a too-close-to-call contest against Sanders.  

The Vermont senator does not have a viable path to surpassing her in the delegate math no matter the outcome, and in fact any reasonable showing by Clinton on June 7 will bring her the delegates needed to secure the nomination.  

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But a victory in the nation’s most populous state would give Sanders a solid if symbolic reason to keep pressing his case until the Philadelphia convention in late July.  

“This is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other,” the governor wrote in an open letter Tuesday to his constituents eligible to vote next week. “The general election has already begun.”  

But there has been plenty of high-profile fighting between Brown and the Clintons in the past 24 years.  

During a debate in the 1992 campaign, for example, Brown accused Bill Clinton of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.” A seething Clinton glared at Brown and responded: ”You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.”  

And while running to regain the governorship in 2010, Brown went after Bill Clinton when the former president’s comments seemed critical of Brown’s record on taxes during his first stint in Sacramento.   

“Clinton’s a nice guy, but who ever said he always told the truth?” Brown told a crowd in Los Angeles, offering a tart reference to Clinton’s shifting explanations about the precise nature of of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky:  “There’s that whole story there about did he or didn’t he. OK, I did — I did not have taxes with this state.”  

Brown later apologized. Bill Clinton ultimately endorsed his gubernatorial comeback quest and in recent months, there had been signs of a rapprochement. Although Brown stayed officially neutral until now, he invited the former president to dinner soon after Hillary Clinton launched her 2016 bid — with both sides signaling it was time for a fresh, if belated, relaunching of the relationship.  

There are practical reasons for Brown to endorse Clinton, especially now that her nomination is on the cusp of becoming a foregone conclusion.  

He’s been known as “Governor Moonbeam” for his grandiose and outside the box liberal ideas since the 1970s, but after four decades, Brown is not much of an aging liberal gadfly in the Sanders mold. Instead, he’s positioned himself as more focused on the state’s finances in the “progressive who gets things done” mold Clinton has cast for herself.  

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California is the nation’s dominant “blue” state and so any Democratic governor has obvious economic and political reasons to be on friendly terms with a like-minded administration.  

And this year the differences between the  state’s worldview and that of the Republican nominee are particularly stark: Under Brown, for example, the state has set policies on the environment and the rights of migrant workers that are totally antithetical to Donald Trump’s views about climate change and immigration.  


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