SAN FRANCISCO — When Bill Clinton arrived at the 1992 Democratic National Convention as the party’s all-but-certain presidential nominee, his persistent and pesky primary opponent, former California governor Jerry Brown, refused to endorse him.
Two decades later, Brown is again governor of the nation’s most-populous state. Yet in a sign that he has patched things up with the first family of Democratic politics, Brown is ready to support Hillary Rodham Clinton if she seeks the presidency in 2016.
“I really believe that Hillary Clinton has the presence, the experience and the support of the vast majority of Democrats in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime,” Brown said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post. “She has this if she wants.”
Brown, 76, has been in public life for longer than just about any politician on the scene today. He first was sworn in as governor in 1975, as Hillary Rodham began teaching criminal law classes at the University of Arkansas and prepared to wed Bill Clinton. After political setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, the former “Governor Moonbeam” climbed his way back up, first as mayor of Oakland and then as state attorney general.
Now in his second act as governor, Brown has won praise for effectively repairing California after taking office in 2011. He has largely resolved the state’s budget problems, revived its economy, overhauled its education and prison systems, and nurtured relationships with Republican legislators.
Some Democrats suggest the California turnaround is a platform from which the eccentric and whip-smart Brown might launch a dark-horse presidential bid in 2016. He failed three previous runs for the White House in 1976, 1980 and 1992.
Brown dismissed that possibility, although he did not close the door entirely.
“If no one runs and [everyone] says we’ll have an absent Democratic nominee, would I rule that out?” Brown said. “I mean, that would be a little silly, wouldn’t it?”
Asked whether a vigorous primary campaign would be healthy for the party, Brown said he believed it would be destructive: “Primaries are never good for general elections.”
Brown’s comments, which came during a 45-minute interview late last week at a posh hotel in his native San Francisco, were some of his most expansive to date about Clinton and the 2016 campaign.
Brown said he is focused on winning reelection this November for what would be his fourth term as governor. He is heavily favored but faces a challenge from Republican Neal Kashkari, a senior official in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who oversaw the 2008 bank bailouts, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Brown insisted that he is too focused on running California to pay much attention to the Hillarymania consuming many quarters of the Democratic Party, including the fundraising circuit in Brown’s donor-rich state.
“I find that just advising myself is a full-time job,” Brown quipped, adding: “I’m not in the business of giving people advice, particularly to the Clintons, nor would they appreciate it.”
He’s probably right. In 1992, Brown infuriated the Clintons by dredging up Arkansas scandals throughout the presidential primaries and by creating discord at the Democratic convention.
In 2010, Brown’s gubernatorial opponent, Republican Meg Whitman, aired a television ad with 1992 archival footage showing Bill Clinton accusing Brown of raising taxes. Brown responded by saying, “Clinton’s a nice guy, but whoever said he always told the truth? You remember, right? There’s that whole story there about did he or didn’t he. . . . I did not have taxes with this state.”
Brown apologized for his comments, a reference to the Monica Lewinsky affair, and Clinton later endorsed him.
In the interview with The Post, Brown said “Bill was formidable” but “Hillary is even more formidable in terms of what she brings.” He said he last spoke with her when they met in Los Angeles several months ago.
Brown said he sees income inequality as a profound challenge facing the next president. There are few places where the gap between rich and poor is as great as in California, home to billionaire entrepreneurs and immigrant laborers. Brown said he has tried to institute policies here to help lessen that divide, including expanding Medicaid coverage and directing more education funding to low-income students.
“That’s a way of channeling money — not equally, but unequally to those who have more challenges because they’re poor, because they don’t speak English at home,” Brown said.
Another challenge, Brown said, is the exploding amount of money in political campaigns since a 2010 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for super PACs and unlimited donations. He said he believes the current environment is “not healthy” but that as long as Republican donors continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars in elections, Democrats must as well.
“In World War II, when the Poles had a cavalry against the Blitzkrieg, that wasn’t very healthy, I don’t think,” Brown said. “If the other side’s got tanks and motorized vehicles and you’re riding your horse there, you’re going to get mowed down.”
Brown presented a dismal view of Washington and the threat partisan division and government dysfunction pose to the nation’s global standing.
“The profound difference in what the world looks like to a number of Republicans and what it looks like to a number of Democrats is as incompatible as though they’re in different nations,” Brown said. “Therefore the idea that we’re ‘One nation under God,’ charging ahead, is belied by the facts. . . .
“There’s still this kind of momentum of the superpower, but there isn’t the underlying consensus to support superpower activity.”
Brown said he doubts whether the next president — Hillary Clinton or otherwise — could lead the country out of its divided state.
“Democrats want to introduce all these government measures to tax and regulate and enforce a lot of social ideas that the Republicans just can’t stomach, so finding the middle path is not yet done,” Brown said. “I think we need a Democrat who can do that.”
Asked who that leader might be, Brown said, “Not clear.”
Could it be Clinton?
“I don’t know,” he replied. “We’ll find out.”