Heard of Start-Over Dads? Jerry Brown is California's Start-Over Governor

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown
via Meet the Press

Gov. Jerry Brown, 76, was asked on Meet the Press this weekend about running for president.

"If I could go back in a time machine and be 66, I might jump in,” he said.

Brown has had a good run since taking office for the second time in 2011. In large part, that’s because he has finally put his presidential ambitions aside.

Brown could be called California’s “start-over governor.” The term is taken from “start-over dad,” which refers to fathers who start second families in late middle age.

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The second time around, an older father gets to correct the mistakes he made with his first children. As a younger man, he might have been focused on his career, spending evenings and weekends at work while shortchanging his kids. As as older man, he has achieved some professional security and has more time to dote on his younger kids.

So it is with Brown. The first time he was governor, he was distracted by national politics. He ran for president in 1976 and 1980, and was preoccupied with grand theories about America’s role in world history and humanity's place in the cosmos.

During the second bid — a disastrous primary challenge against Jimmy Carter — his support in California plummeted. According to the Field Poll, he bottomed out in April 1980, with a 38 percent approval rating and 61 percent disapproval. He never recovered, and lost his campaign for Senate in 1982.

This time around, Brown has been more focused on California. When he goes on Meet the Press, he doesn’t offer sweeping visions about global affairs. Instead, he talks about the drought.

He also has been more disciplined, focusing his efforts on a handful of nuts-and-bolts initiatives that have mostly succeeded — abolishing redevelopment, prison realignment, changing the funding formula for schools, a tax hike, a water bond. His most controversial effort has been the bullet train, and while voters are worried about it, they haven’t lost confidence in Brown.

He was just re-elected with only minimal effort. The latest Field Poll has him at 56 percent approval to 32 percent disapproval. The PPIC poll pegged him at 61 percent approval to 23 percent disapproval.

It’s hard to connect this Jerry Brown to the volatile man who careened around the country during his third and final presidential campaign, in 1992, endlessly repeating his 1-800 number.

“He’s better now,” former Rep. Jane Harman said on Meet the Press after Brown’s appearance. “This is Jerry Brown reaching the gold standard.”

Californians old enough to remember his first tenure are sort of like the older children who watch their father having fun with his new kids and ask, “Why couldn’t you have been like this with us?”

The answer is that, at his age, he’s lost the ambition to do anything else.


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