Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in Washington on April 17, 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Columnist

A onetime seminarian, Jerry Brown has always had a New Age, unworldly reputation. Columnist Mike Royko labeled him “Governor Moonbeam” in the 1970s, and the nickname stuck, much to Royko’s subsequent regret.

It is high time to recognize this 81-year-old Democrat as one of the most successful politicians — and governors — in U.S. history. He was first elected to statewide office (as California’s secretary of state) 12 years before Pete Buttigieg was born. He served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, then retreated into the political wilderness, only to reemerge as chairman of the California Democratic Party (1989-1991), mayor of Oakland (1999-2007), attorney general of California (2007-2011) and then once again governor (2011-2019) of a state with a gross domestic product bigger than India’s.

In his most recent stint in Sacramento, Brown inherited a $26 billion budget deficit and left a $14 billion surplus. To some extent, he got lucky, as he will be the first to acknowledge. His time as governor coincided with one of the greatest periods of wealth creation in U.S. history, much of it centered in Silicon Valley. But he made his own luck, too, by cutting spending and raising taxes — something few politicians dare to do. He even vetoed a budget passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Having started his political life as an enfant terrible, Brown is now a wise man of American politics. So he is a good person to ask the question of the moment: How to beat President Trump?

Brown was typically attired in all black and typically erudite when we met last week in his apartment with sweeping views of San Francisco. He and his wife, two dogs in tow, had just arrived from the primitive ranch house a couple of hours north of the city where they spend most of their time. What other politician can quote, by memory, Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl E. Schorske? Brown did, and he wasn’t showing off.

As a professional politician, he is impressed by Trump’s political skills. “He has a chutzpah and insouciance and just charges ahead,” Brown noted, and he is skilled at playing on the “resentment” of his followers. “He’s convincing. . . . He’s a dynamic speaker.” Brown is particularly impressed by how Trump has turned the border wall into a “metaphor”: “He’s basically saying, ‘Hey, those lefties and socialists are against it, I’m for it, and it’s protection.’ And somehow that will protect you from closing down the factory or protect you from these strange social experiments.”

That is not to say the former governor — who himself sought the presidency on three occasions (1976, 1980, 1992) — is an admirer of the current president. “I don’t want to believe he can be reelected, because I think it’s dangerous,” Brown said. “I think we need stability at the highest level.”

To counter Trump, he said, “Even a scent of wimpiness would be fatal. . . . You have to not only be strong but exude strength.” Don’t trade insults — “If you insult back, then you violate a very important principle, and that is that voters don’t like squabbling at City Hall.” But at the same time, “you’ve got to go toe to toe . . . just do it with charm,” like John F. Kennedy did. And then, when the moment is right, “You’ve got to hit him between the eyes, rhetorically.”

His big advice is to think big — but not get too specific. Recalling Gary Hart’s primary loss in 1984, he said, “You need just enough beef, but not too much to choke on it.” He says the Democrats should promise better health care, infrastructure and education, cleaner energy and even space exploration. “You need the romance, you need the dream.” That’s why, as governor, he championed a costly high-speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (His successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, downsized the dream.) But he argues it’s a mistake to lay out specific programs “that have trillion-dollar budget implications when you’re not in a position to make those kind of decisions. That’s jacking everybody up for a big letdown.”

Brown views global warming as an urgent and existential danger (along with nuclear war) but has doubts about the practicality of the Green New Deal. “I like the idea of ‘green.’ I like the idea of ‘New Deal.’ But the New Deal occurred when there was 19 percent unemployment. That’s a lot different from 4 percent today. So people’s appetite for major change is not as great when everybody’s working.” A truer fiscal conservative than any leading Republican, Brown warns his party: “We have to be careful how we spend our money. It can’t be ‘everything for everybody.’ ”

Brown admits that “I’m saying things that are not exactly consistent. I’m saying we need the dream, we need to invest, we need to be the country that can do big things. On the other hand, I’m saying you can’t be stigmatized as an out-of-touch spender.” It’s sound, if contradictory, advice. The question now is which Democratic candidate can exemplify F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a “first-rate intelligence” — namely, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”