Would 'one term' pledge get Jerry Brown past Meg Whitman in California?

Political analysts are split over whether Jerry Brown would gain anything over Meg Whitman by promising to stay in office as California governor for just one term.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Newscom
California Attorney General Jerry Brown gestures during a press conference July 26. Political analysts say there are benefits and drawbacks to the idea of running for just one term as California governor.

In California's tight gubernatorial race, could less really be more?

California Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) is already spending less – way less – on campaigning than former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R). What if he promised only to stay in office for a single term? That's the strategy a leading political writer in California has suggested as a way for Mr. Brown to produce the fireworks he needs to shoot ahead of Ms. Whitman in their race – now neck and neck with just six weeks to go.

“Handled right – perhaps sprung before a large TV audience during a campaign debate – it could alter the Democrat’s widespread image as a career political opportunist,” writes George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times. “Brown could cast himself as a committed native son determined to reroute the state back onto the right track. And he would have credibility as an aging pol looking to burnish his legacy for the history books and join his father [former governor] Pat Brown, as one of California’s political greats. In addition, for anyone concerned about his age – 72 – it would guarantee that he’d step down at 76.”

Is Mr. Skelton's idea spot-on or spaced-out?

“[Skelton] is absolutely right on all counts,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

“If handled correctly, a one-term pledge could change the dynamics of the contest,” adds Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Skelton makes some strong arguments, not least Brown’s age," he says. "Does California really want a two-term Brown turning 80 in office?”

Skelton’s column mentions other top candidates who considered the idea and then backed off – including Sen. John McCain and former President Ronald Reagan. The first was reported in the book “Game Change” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, and the other, says Skelton, was related directly to him by the late Mike Deaver, Reagan’s one-time image guru.

Brown is currently being outspent by billionaire Whitman 100-to-1, and the pledge could shift some free media coverage his way, some suggest.

“If Brown pledges to serve only one term, the benefit for him will be a lot of press coverage,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “He could try to portray himself as a selfless public servant and argue that California needs him to come in and clean house, but that he won’t stay past his welcome and won’t spend any of his time in office running for the next election.”

Just as many analysts, inside and outside the state, say that a one-term promise is no good.

“If he could carry it off in a way that seemed genuine, it might make sense from a campaign standpoint, but it’s just as likely to seem gimmicky,” says Matt Kerbel, a professor of political science at Villanova University. “These things can be dismissed [by voters] when you consider all the members of the House and Senate who say, ‘I’m going to term limit myself’ and then find out how much work there is to be done and so run again....”

Mr. Kerbel says official Washington begins to look beyond lame duck presidents about two years into their second terms to see who they are going to work with next and play to them instead. “Why bring that on yourself?” asks Kerbel. He says California’s problems are so deeply entrenched that it will take two terms for a governor to solve them. Also, it may be too late in the game for a shift like the one Skelton is proposing. “It’s difficult to change people’s minds in just several weeks when you’ve been around for decades,” he says.

The Brown campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but Brown himself rejected the idea over the weekend on local TV, saying it would immediately make him a lame duck.

Skelton himself mentioned that as a downside, and others agree.

“It is much more difficult for governors to get their programs through the legislature in their second term, since the legislature feels that they have less political clout,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS.

Mr. Stern says he can’t recall any presidential or gubernatorial candidate who has ever voluntarily pledged to serve only one term. But that fact might just as easily play into Brown’s strength as an iconoclast who thinks outside the box.

"It could be a 'Jerry Brown moment,' ” says Mr. Stern, “since he often does things that are not expected or done by the typical politician.”

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