WASHINGTON - In matters cultural, California has always been America's petri dish. Whatever happened in California usually infiltrated the rest of the country. Today there is reason to hope that other trends collecting on our far-left coast (geographically speaking) might infect the nation, especially in matters of governance and fiscal responsibility.
Jerry Brown, about to begin a run for his fourth term as governor, has shed the "Governor Moonbeam" moniker that he has worn like an itchy suit for nearly 40 years, compliments of famed Chicago columnist Mike Royko (RIP, 1997). Even Royko later regretted the nickname and tried to retract it after hearing Brown speak at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, saying Brown seemed to be the only Democrat who understood the challenges that lay ahead.
There is cause today to resurrect this observation. In his elder years - not to be confused with elderly - Brown has traded earlier dreams of a California space program for more down-to-earth policies that reflect a respect for non-ideological pragmatism. At times, he sounds more Republican than Democrat and, not to get carried away, as though he may be sipping a little tea on the side.
Since becoming governor again in 2011 following a decades-long hiatus (he also served as governor from 1975 to 1983), Brown has turned around the state's budget from deficit to surplus. When NBC's David Gregory asked Brown whether his fiscal success in California carried any lessons for Washington, Brown was candid and jaw-droppingly refreshing.
"Well, you've got to be tough on spending. No matter how liberal you want to be," he said.
Did he say tough on spending? Hold on to your flip-flops, there's more.
"At the end of the day, fiscal discipline is the fundamental predicate of a free society. And you just have to maintain that."
Listening to the interview, I did wonder for a few seconds whether Republican John Boehner had body-snatched the governor and was using Brown to channel his thoughts. Indeed, Brown sounded more like the speaker of the House than the president of the United States, whose own $4 trillion budget was just released. Although Brown and President Obama share similar goals, especially in infrastructure spending (Brown wants to build a high-speed rail system in California), the governor recognizes that such projects have to be considered within a broader commitment to balance. "Spend more. But in the framework of adjusting your long-term liabilities. And that's not the case today," said Brown.
As one example of how Brown has had to stand tough on spending, his budget did not include an item pushed by California's Democratic Senate president pro tempore to create a universal pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. The program would have cost the state about $1 billion a year to benefit 350,000 children. When did Jerry Brown start hating 4-year-olds? He doesn't, of course, but reducing spending is always painful for someone. It is also sometimes necessary.
On other subjects of current interest, Brown observed how much things have changed in the four decades since he was first governor and dating Linda Ronstadt. On pot legalization, he was again sane - and conservative.
First, Brown said he'd like to see how things play out in Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana use has been legalized. Second, he said that while some things are fine in a certain amount, we have a tendency to go to extremes.
"How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation? The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together."
All things conservative are not always sane, needless to say. And liberals have moved the country forward in necessary ways. Balance is the key, and it would appear that Brown has found his center.
His comments took many by surprise not only because they don't jibe with our recollection of Governor Moonbeam but because they make so much sense.
If the political center where most Americans dwell is starved for a leader, Jerry Brown may be the model for what they seek.
It's too bad that he essentially has conferred the Democratic presidential nomination on Hillary Clinton. Some would say Brown is too old and perhaps, at 75, he is. But if youth brought us Governor Moonbeam, an older, wiser Brown gives us hope.
By all means, please pass the petri dish.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.
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