One of the biggest criticisms of Gov. Jerry Brown -- a criticism most often aired even by allies -- is that he hasn't been out in public explaining himself enough. This summer, in a terrific piece and interview in the magazine Pacific Standard (full disclosure: I've written for PS as well), journalist Marc Cooper offered the clearest statement of this criticism. In an interview, Brown offered Cooper the following defense of his low profile.
"How much time can a governor's face and voice bombard the citizenry before they regurgitate? Even Churchill -- they retired him pretty quickly after the war, and he gave some pretty darn good speeches. I think he had good messaging. But the world of messaging is the world of campaign consultants, of politicians, who are like trained seals who are given their message and then perform. I'm not into that. I'm interested in thinking, eloquence, debate, presenting the information."
Pan from that conversation to a scene in San Diego recently at a coffee shop, where Brown stopped while campaigning for his temporary tax ballot initiative, Prop 30. Here's how the LA Times described the conversation:
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"In the cafe, located in the shadow of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, Brown asked employees whether they had heard of Proposition 30. A couple had. Most had not.
"'Do you watch TV?' Brown asked a young woman who had not heard of the measure.
"She said she did not. Brown seemed exasperated. 'That's the problem,' the governor said. 'How do you reach the non-TV voter?'"
There's an obvious answer to that, one that critics of Brown's low-profile strategy have been offering for some time: you reach the non-TV voter by engaging citizens in every form of media, in person, and through new deliberative tools (available via the Internet and in person) in conversation about government.
Brown has done precious little of this. His concern about being overexposed seems genuine, and it's charming in an old-fashioned sort of way. But it's also wrong for these times. The world and California are much bigger places; the media universe is more crowded. The occasional statement, or a big push late in campaign season, isn't enough to get the word out in this environment. Public engagement must be constant.
A governor who isn't constantly trying to cut through the clutter and get out a consistent message is, quite simple, a governor who isn't doing his whole job.