No One Is Laughing At `Governor Moonbeam' Now

Pundits love to lampoon former California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. Is Jerry Brown a liberal or a conservative? No, he's an Aries. Hear the current lineup for Brown's Cabinet? Linda Ronstadt for Minister of Culture, Mother Teresa for Secretary of Health & Human Services. Will Brown hold a summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin? No, the two will just do a Vulcan mind-meld.

Because of his "Governor Moonbeam" image, the string of Brown put-downs seems endless. But so is Brown's capacity to confound the Establishment. At Democratic headquarters, party leaders are not laughing as they contemplate the possibility that Brown's assaults on frontrunner Bill Clinton may hurt the party's chances of unseating President Bush.

The "spoiler" label does an injustice to Brown, whose upset victory in the Mar. 24 Connecticut primary has set Clinton up for a potentially more profound embarrassment in New York on Apr. 7. Fact is, Brown is less a spoiler than a latter-day Savonarola, a monastic zealot whose promise to put a torch to a "corrupt political system" mirrors voters' bellicose mood this year.

As a messenger, Brown strains credulity. He has undergone more political transformations than Woody Allen's Zelig character. He started out in California politics as an ascetic New-Age Lefty. He railed against nuclear power and agricultural growers, passed up the Governor's limo for a plain Plymouth, and took pilgrimages to Zen meditation centers--but he governed by carefully nurturing ties to labor and other traditional party blocs. Washed out of the statehouse by California's conservative wave, Brown reemerged in 1989 as state party chairman and cheerfully hit up business for the special-interest dollars he now abhors.

VOLUNTEER ARMY. His latest political incarnation may seem unlikely, but Brown is using it to win converts. He has won primaries or caucuses in Connecticut, Colorado, and Nevada, run a strong second in Maine and Michigan, and could win again in Vermont on Mar. 31 and Wisconsin on Apr. 7. Polls show him tied with Clinton in California, whose June 2 primary ends the nominating season.

Moreover, by continually bashing Clinton over ethics, his Arkansas record, and a slippery switch from Southern good ol' boy to traditional Democrat, Brown is beginning to inflict real damage: Connecticut exit polls found that 46% of Democratic voters question Clinton's character. The assault is preventing Clinton from training his guns on George Bush. "People know Brown is a charlatan," says pollster Irwin J. Harrison. "But they believe that the political system is bought and paid for, and Clinton is part of the system."

Politics aside, there are also substantive reasons why pols should start taking Brown more seriously. The first is the potency of his message. Although Brown's characterization of Democrats and Republicans as united in a money-grubbing elite is exaggerated, campaign finance is a scandal and does force lawmakers to spend most of their waking hours wheedling contributions from organized interests. Asked about this, Clinton mumbles platitudes about imposing modest campaign-spending limits and making free air time available to challengers. Brown counters that Clinton seems an unlikely reformer, since the Arkansan's campaign is heavily underwritten by $1,000 contributions from Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers.

And Brown has discovered that most voters don't cast their ballots because they are bowled over by an 86-page economic tract. Thanks to savvy research done by polling guru Patrick Caddell, Brown has focused his energy on bashing the irredeemable corruption of Democratic and Republican incumbents. In 1984, Gary Hart nearly toppled Walter F. Mondale with this approach. Brown, a far more supple politician, is following the same blueprint.

Relying on the politics of resentment, Brown has put together an odd coalition of liberals, environmentalists, alienated blue-collar workers, and radical-chic elements of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The pastiche has hung together despite Brown's calls for a nakedly regressive 13% flat tax, an idea that sets hearts pounding with glee at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

No, Brown doesn't stand to win the nomination this way. But should a new scandal sink Clinton, the party elders Brown reviles will have to yank the prize away from him. That would split the Democratic Party wide open, fuel a new burst of anti-Establishment cynicism--and pave the way for a future crusader to rally the voters against those dug-in dinosaurs in Washington.

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