Jerry Brown: “I Did Not Have Taxes With This State” UPDATED

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The rap on the California Democrats’ great gubernatorial hope, Jerry Brown, is that he is refreshingly his own guy. He says what he thinks, when he thinks it. And this may be one of his top selling points against his Republican rival, Meg Whitman, who campaigns like a corporate robot, always on message, always bland, working voters like spreadsheets, often hiding behind the consultants purchased with the many many millions of dollars she made as CEO of EBay.

But refreshing sometimes carries a bitter aftertaste. I know that Adam pointed to this video below, but it deserves its own post.

Let’s see what Brown just did:

1. He gave many millions of dollars in free publicity to Whitman’s misleading [see update below] attack ad, in a state where paid media is enormously expensive.

2. In an election where Brown needs big Democratic turnout, he calls Bill Clinton a liar, picking a fight with a political hero of his own base. (Bill Clinton won California in 1996 by 13 points.)

3. In a state that generally doesn’t care about the sexual misadventures of its politicians (see Schwarzenegger, Arnold), Brown attacked Clinton for lying about sex.

4. Brown employed an advanced level of irony that may be lost on many voters. By saying “I did not have taxes with this state,” he is, after all, equating his denial with Clinton’s denial, which would suggest that like Clinton, Brown is lying too. Of course, that is not what Brown means. He is being doubly sarcastic. But go try to explain this sort of humor in an evening news segment.

5. He has helped to establish his great asset–a quick thinking, authentic, political style–as a sort of Joe Bidenesque gaffe reflex.

To Brown’s credit, he is right and Clinton, as quoted by Whitman is wrong. By one measure, taxes were lower at the end of Brown’s two terms as governor than they were when he began. In the clip played by Whitman, Clinton in 1992 cites CNN to make this case. Yet the author of that CNN report, writing now for FactCheck.org, explains here that his 18 year old reporting was wrong.

Yet Whitman’s consultant-driven, robo-campaign is happy to hide behind a two-decade-old mistake by CNN, and a political attack by Bill Clinton, to misinform the public. This speaks directly to Whitman’s integrity. But then, integrity doesn’t win elections most of the time. And now that Brown has attacked Clinton below the belt, he can’t exactly count on the former president to come forward to clear the air.

UPDATE: An aide to Whitman emails me to protest my calling the ad misleading. There are indeed different ways of looking at the question of whether or not Brown raised taxes or not over his eight years. The FactCheck.org document that I linked to above makes clear that Californians were spending slightly less per $100 of their income in state taxes at the end of his second term than they were at the beginning. In 1975, the first year for which Brown had responsibility, Californians spent $6.95 of every $100 in state taxes. In 1982, the last year for which Brown had responsibility, Californians spent $6.56, a reduction about 6 percent. Part of this reduction was related to the recession, and part of it was related to Proposition 13, a property tax control measure that Brown initially opposed.

But the Whitman campaign does the calculations differently. In the middle of Brown’s tenure as governor taxes did go higher. So if you average together the taxation per $100 over the length of Brown’s two terms, the tax collection was higher than over the length of his predecessor, Gov. Ronald Reagan. In the Whitman ad, Clinton is quoted saying that Brown “raised taxes as governor of California,”  which is narrowly true but by no means tells the whole story, since tax collection was lower when Brown left office than when he arrived. Factcheck.org’s Brooks Jackson gets the context in his post:

The point I was trying to make in 1992 remains valid. Brown’s claims to have been a tax-cutting governor — then and now — need to be seen in context. As I said then, rising taxes in Brown’s early years helped bring about a tax revolt. It came in the form of Proposition 13, a ballot initiative through which voters amended the state Constitution to roll back local property taxes and impose a requirement that any future state tax increases be approved by a two-thirds majority in each house of the state Legislature. Its passage was a shock to California, and echoed nationally as well.

UPDATE #2: Jerry Brown has apologized to Bill Clinton.

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