Grading the Brown Record: the Public Narrative

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

​As Gov. Jerry Brown closes his fourth term, he is being widely celebrated as a success. But his record and the state of the state, viewed more closely, doesn’t merit such celebration.

​I’ve been asked repeatedly by other journalists and Californians how I see Brown, and why I don’t see him as a success. So I’ve decided to give him grades, on multiple fronts.

​Let’s start with his greatest area of success—public relations and the public narrative he created around himself.

​Grade: A  and F

​He won the political and public relations battle in a rout. Journalists from all over the world have spent the last couple years singing his praises. There have been few dissenting voices outside the dark, fact-free digital caves of the right.

​Brown’s key insight was that familiarity breeds contempt. He didn’t govern much in public. He wasn’t present at every tragedy, at least in a visual way. He didn’t work to keep himself and the business of governance in the news.

​That was a smart calculation, and one future governors will probably emulate. The reality is that governance in California, even in good times, is messy and next to impossible to explain. So why bother highlighting the details? Try to stay out of the media until you have some success to share.

​Brown also cleverly framed success as governor narrowly. Balancing the budget was, by Brown’s light, the mark of success. And he pulled that off, and then some, producing a surplus and filling a new rainy day fund, with some money left over for further reserves.

​So that all adds up to an A. Why do I also give him an F?

​Because he succeeded too well in defining the narrative.

​After decades of budget fights and deficits, budget balance was important. But it was not the whole thing. And Brown focused on the budget to the exclusion of addressing the state’s bigger problems. He chose frugality for frugality’s sake. And the state is suffering for that in a host of different ways. (More of those in future grades).

​He also so won the public narrative—and so embedded the supposed connection between budget balance and gubernatorial success—that he set up future governors – and future and very necessary initiatives – for failure.

To address the state’s enormous challenges – in climate, in housing, in educating more people, in caring for the aging—the state will need to spend gobs of money. And the budget will fall out of balance. So those new initiatives will be portrayed – in media and publicly – as failures, even if they work quite well.

Brown has made the budget the only scorecard. Education levels, the public’s health, housing affordability, the amount of infrastructure built are more important metrics, but we have been taught, by Brown and the press, to focus on the budget.

And that deserves an F for failure.

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