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Jerry Brown, learn to hang up a phone

October 8, 2010 | 10:40 am

Brown I wrote earlier this week that Meg Whitman's campaign was doing a terrible job of finding a way out of its immigration flap. Perhaps I misjudged Whitman's stay-the-course strategy as incompetence when it was in fact strategic self-restraint, as if Jerry Brown's guerrilla operation would provide an out.  It did:

In a private conversation that was inadvertently taped by a voicemail machine (audio below), an associate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown can be heard referring to his Republican opponent Meg Whitman as a “whore” for cutting a deal protecting law enforcement pensions as the two candidates competed for police endorsements....

“Do we want to put an ad out? … That I have been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be – that they’ll go to Whitman, and that’s where they’ll go because they know Whitman will give 'em, will cut them a deal, but I won’t,” Brown said.

At that point, what appears to be a second voice interjects: "What about saying she’s a whore?”

"Well, I'm going to use that," Brown responds. "It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect the pensions."

Anyone who's ever read bestselling campaign postmortems  knows that behind the squeaky-clean image of the candidate lurks legions of potty-mouthed aides who insult the other side on a regular basis; even the pols themselves have been known to (frequently) drop the f-bomb  when they think the mics are off. Shortly after she locked up the GOP nomination, Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina was caught off-air  making fun of incumbent Barbara Boxer's hair. These things happen.

Still, given the circumstances of Whitman having a good shot at being California's first female governor, Brown's campaign should have shown more discipline (even more so since Jerry's sister, Kathleen Brown, vied for the historic first when she ran against Pete Wilson  in 1994). Granted, the offending remarks were made in early September, when Brown didn't enjoy the lead in the polls he has now.  Plus, the Los Angeles Police Protective League's decision to leak this audio a about a month after its recording -- and just as Whitman desperately needed Brown's campaign to struggle with its own October surprise -- raises suspicion. But Brown could have at least admonished his staffer over a poor choice of words instead of saying, "Well, I'm going to use that."

More broadly, the Brown flap says something about our political polarization. Candidates and officeholders speak wistfully about reaching across the aisle (President Obama sincerely tried to early in his term, which annoyed progressives hungry for political revenge), when they and their associates harbor actual contempt for the other side.  Americans didn't collectively decide that stubbornness and red-faced anger would from now on define political discourse; the candidates and campaigns themselves had a lot to do with that.

Let's hope this is the last of the Whitman-Brown gotcha contest. Even before Whitman's immigration scandal broke last week, a race that could have been a substantive exchange of ideas between a seasoned pol and the quintessential California entrepreneur had been anything but. Both have punted on fixing the budget, with Brown restricting himself to raising taxes only with voter approval and Whitman promising to do something about welfare and to fire thousands of public employees. The October surprises provide some glib distractions from what was already a glib campaign.

-- Paul Thornton

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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