Jerry Brown: From 'Governor Moonbeam' to Earthly Avenger

April 05, 1992|By KENNETH T. WALSH

When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1980, his slogan was cosmic: "Protect the earth. Serve the people. Explore the universe."

He has scaled down his ambitions and toughened up his message since then. In his latest transmogrification, the man mocked as Governor Moonbeam has become an earthly avenger, bent on ridding the political system of corruption, "money-changers" and the likes of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. To a surprising extent, the strategy is working. Mr. Brown's narrow victory in the Connecticut primary gave him new-found credibility as Mr. Clinton's only remaining challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Few think Mr. Brown can win the nomination: The logistics of amassing a majority of delegates are dauntingly against him. But he could conceivably deny that nomination to Mr. Clinton.

Moreover, the former California governor's emergence from what calls the "media black hole of nonexistence" might have serious repercussions that could last until November.

Mr. Brown's most likely impact will be to continue to raise doubts about Mr. Clinton's character and integrity. He has mercilessly attacked the Arkansas governor for "a scandal a week" -- everything from his environmental record to cozy dealings between his state administration and key business interests, including those connected to his lawyer wife, Hillary. And Mr. Brown deftly tailors his attacks to each state.

In New York, which holds its primary Tuesday, he is appealing to disgruntled members of organized labor by labeling Mr. Clinton a "union-buster" because Arkansas has a right-to-work law. If Mr. Clinton stumbles in New York, which is crucial to any Democrat's victory in November, it would be a serious blow to his argument that he can defeat George Bush. Pressure would then mount to deny Mr. Clinton a first-ballot nomination and perhaps turn the contest toward a party heavyweight like Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen or New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. If nothing else, his challenge delays any Democratic opportunity to focus on President Bush rather than continue the internecine warfare.

Now comes what Mr. Brown says he has wanted all along: bigger crowds, more television coverage -- and far more scrutiny of his own ideas and character. It will not be a pretty sight. Not only does Mr. Brown react harshly to criticism, but his political and personal course has been marked over the years by abrupt, often overtly opportunistic shifts in every direction. Among his flip-flops:

* Mr. Brown raised an estimated $20 million while he was Democratic Party chairman in California and during his previous campaigns, much of it in large contributions from special interests. Now, he adamantly opposes such donations.

* In the early months of the presidential campaign, Mr. Brown railed against special-interest domination of politics and government and attacked Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin for accepting )) contributions from labor unions. But after Mr. Harkin dropped out of the race -- leaving his big labor support up for grabs -- union jackets suddenly became part of the Brown campaign wardrobe, and pro-labor rhetoric part of his regular spiel.

* As California party boss in 1990, Mr. Brown vigorously opposed term limitations for members of Congress. Now he supports them with equal passion.

* After advocating free-trade agreements with Canada and Mexico throughout the 1980s, he now opposes such pacts.

* During eight years as California governor, he failed to produce a single major civil rights bill. Now he says he offers the best hope to minorities.

Mr. Brown is trying to sell himself as the champion of the little guy against big money and power. Yet Mr. Clinton and many economists argue persuasively that Mr. Brown's proposals for a flat tax of 13 percent combined with a national value-added tax of 13 percent would actually hurt middle-income and poor taxpayers and help the wealthy -- while adding greatly to the deficit.

His critics see Mr. Brown as an unabashed hypocrite, willing to bend in any direction for political gain. "Jerry Brown's campaign technique is to grab onto some issue he's shown no previous sign of caring about and then to condemn with self-righteous wrath everyone else who fails to join him immediately in his newfound faith," wrote columnist Michael Kinsley. "In Brown's way of thinking, you are hopelessly corrupt if you still think as Mr. Brown thought until the day before yesterday." Today, the critics argue, the ultimate insider is just trying to capitalize on voter wrath by pretending to be a crusading reformer.

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