Since Barack Obama’s reelection, pundits have understandably focused their attention on Hillary Clinton’s intentions to run in 2016. The former secretary of state and first lady is the overwhelming frontrunner for the next Democratic presidential nomination. No other Democrat is anywhere close to Clinton in any poll of possible candidates with even Vice President Joe Biden trailing far behind her. Though one should always be careful about predicting political events this far in advance, with a little more than two years to go until the Iowa caucuses, the nomination is clearly hers for the asking.
But that near certainty hasn’t stopped the speculation about who will challenge Clinton in that caucus and other primaries in the first months of 2016. Unlike the last Democratic go-round when no one chose to play the gadfly and force President Obama to defend his record to party members, Clinton won’t go unopposed. But given the overwhelming odds against such an effort succeeding, the assumption is that no one, except perhaps Biden–who would be a plausible candidate were Clinton not in the running–would dare risk diminishing their political brand by engaging in a futile run. Any Democrat that did so would be deeply resented by party leaders and even some in the grass roots for doing the Republicans’ dirty work by taking shots at Clinton that would pave the way for even tougher GOP attacks in the general election. What they want is a coronation of Clinton, not a test of her mettle before she asks the voters to make her the first female president.
That means would-be Democratic stars like New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo or Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will stay out of the 2016 race. That’s left other, less highly regarded figures like former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer making noises about taking on Clinton from the left. Schweitzer might surprise us, but he isn’t the Democrat that Hillary should be worrying about. The real wild card for Democrats in 2016 is the same guy that gave heartburn to the last two Democrat presidents before Obama in primaries: Jerry Brown.
The California governor is 75 years and thought by some to be too old to be even thinking about running for president in 2016. Brown is in some respects an artifact of American political history. He has been running for public office for more than 40 years with mixed success. He’s been elected governor of California three times (1974, 1978, 2010) as well as winning terms as the state’s secretary of state (1970) attorney general (2006), and mayor of Oakland (1998, 2002). But he’s also lost a lot of elections, including three runs for president (1976, 1980, and 1992) and one for the U.S. Senate (1982). Brown has said he isn’t ruling out a run, a stance that is fueling some of the speculation about him. There are good reasons to think that someone who will turn 78 in 2016 will take a pass, but the opportunity to play the spoiler may be too tempting.
It is, after all, a role he has played before. In 1976 when Jimmy Carter seemingly had the Democratic nomination sewn up, Brown was a late entry into the race and won several primaries, giving the Georgia governor a good scare before finally losing. His 1980 candidacy flopped as Ted Kennedy assumed the role of chief challenger to Carter. He failed again in 1992 but had more of an impact on the race eventually won by Bill Clinton. He won several primaries in small states and did more to discomfit Clinton in debates than any of the other candidates, especially by being the only one not afraid to bring up his troubled personal life.
Brown entered the national consciousness as “Governor Moonbeam” in the 1970s, but has lasted so long because there is a certain authenticity about a man who has stuck to the same left-wing populist style even as generations, styles, and political trends have come and gone. It is that authenticity as well as his perennial gadfly style that has the potential to unsettle Hillary. A conventional Democrat, especially a male one, has no answer to the push on the part of Clinton’s supporters to elect the first woman to the presidency. But Brown, who delights in playing the outlier, is the kind of person that could attract enough discontented Democrats who are sick of the Clintons to give Hillary reason to worry. As a governor who is perceived as something of a success, he would also be following the playbook of some potential Republican candidates, who realize the public wants candidates who are not tied to the current mess in Washington.
This isn’t to say Brown can beat Hillary Clinton. I don’t think there’s a chance that he would. But he is just offbeat enough to be able to portray her as the ultimate establishment figure and take advantage of it with primary voters who may be willing, as they occasionally have been in the past, to cast protest votes intended to shake up the nominee. With nothing to lose and no prospects for future presidential runs, Jerry Brown might be just the person to make Hillary’s life hell for a few months in 2016.