In an age of caustic partisan division, Gov. Jerry Brown sits in the political catbird seat as he prepares to lay out the agenda for the rest of his term in a State of the State address to Californians on Thursday in Sacramento.

The 74-year-old Democrat, whom conservatives once derided as “Gov. Moonbeam,” is often lavished these days with praise from California Republicans. They say Brown is the reigning “adult in the room” at the Capitol, where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

Brown is being lauded by many Republicans as their last best hope to keep the Democratic supermajorities in the Assembly and state Senate in line, thanks to a unique combination of his trademark love of bon mots spoken in Latin, a famously cheapskate approach to finances, and political skills and resume unrivaled in the state capital.

“Are you sitting down? Because the only thing standing between a wild and crazy Legislature and you is Jerry Brown and his wild and crazy veto pen,” Republican strategist Joel Fox  told an audience of GOP insiders in Los Angeles recently. “He is like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae stopping the hordes coming through the pass.”

GOP strategist Kevin Spillane marvels that “Jerry Brown was triangulating when Bill Clinton was still in diapers. He knows how to play the right, left and the middle.”

Wise older statesman

As he begins the second half of his third term in the job – decades after his first two, from 1975-83 – Brown is “trying to go for the older, wiser statesman,” Spillane says. “Given how ideological and extreme most legislators are on the Democratic side, he looks moderate in comparison.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and hardly a past admirer of Brown’s politics, said that approach is one reason Republicans simply cannot muster much outrage these days over Brown’s leadership.

“Yes, he did pass a tax increase,” Whalen said, referring to Proposition 30, approved by voters in November, “but he hasn’t exactly been a liberal governor of excess. It’s hard to get mad at him.”

The California governor was the savvy engineer in passing the tax proposition, which received 55 percent voter support. The measure is expected to help deliver revenue that puts California back in the black after being awash in red ink for a decade.

“What can you argue with? He took a $186 million deficit and turned it into a surplus” of $851 million, says Democratic political consultant Eric Jaye. “He’s been successful – you might even say brilliant.”

In recent weeks, Brown’s moves have included challenging a federal court order to relieve prison overcrowding by releasing some prisoners, saying that would put the public at risk. He also publicly warned UC regents to keep costs under control and education affordable by exploring more online programs.

Such efforts have riled some liberals while winning grudging admiration from Republicans.

Gingrich comparison

“If you’re comparing him to the Assembly speaker and the Senate president pro tem, Jerry Brown sounds downright Newtonian – as in Newt Gingrich,” says GOP consultant Mark Standriff.

“In the November election, he rowed to the left – and now he’s back with the oar on the right,” strategist Fox said in a pointed reference to Brown’s “canoe theory of politics,” about paddling on both sides to stay afloat in the dangerous waters of the California statehouse.

Brown has been so successful on that front that the state GOP is in the rare and embarrassing position of appearing to lack a credible challenger to oppose the governor, who’s widely expected to seek re-election in 2014.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republican voters by 13 percentage points, the GOP “passion” for a candidate to challenge Brown may be tepid, says Whalen.

Still, a few California Republicans insist that Brown’s moderate show is just that – and say they won’t be fooled.

Seeking relevance

“Some Republicans are desperate to seek relevance and are praising the governor in hopes that they’ll get a place at the table,” said Jon Fleischman, who publishes the state’s most influential GOP blog,

“If you’re willing to cede your role as a fiscal conservative to prop up Jerry Brown,” Fleischman said, Republicans could find themselves without a conservative base. He added that Brown remains committed to expensive plans, such as high-speed rail and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water projects, while continuing to sidestep the problem of unfunded pension liabilities.

Treating Brown as “the adult supervision” for Democrats, Fleischman said, could lead the GOP to “become a permanent superminority.”

But Spillane says that as Brown lays out the state agenda Thursday, battered Republicans may be grateful they’ve escaped complete disaster.

Crossposted on San Francisco Chronicle