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One Down, Three to Go: Assessing the Brown/Warren Debate

Tonight marked the first of four, head-to-head debates between US Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and Senator Scott Brown. And what a night it was. As expected, the one-hour long discussion covered a wide array of topics, including jobs and the economy, foreign affairs, and women’s issues. Earlier today, I previewed what I expected to happen. Now, I will evaluate each candidate’s performance, starting with the Democratic challenger.


Elizabeth Warren: Welcome to the big time, Professor. Considering this was the first time Ms. Warren had debated publicly, let alone on national television, she was well prepared and ready for the challenge. But make no mistake: class warfare was a recurring theme this evening. In fact, two of her most potent charges against the incumbent was that he (a) supported government subsidies for Big Oil, and (b) voted against three jobs bills that would “cut taxes for 98%” of Massachusetts residents. (On the former charge, he opposed the legislation ending subsidies on one occasion because the Democratic Senate Majority refused to consider any amendments; on the latter charge, he opposed these so-called “jobs bills” because they were fiscally irresponsible, raised taxes during a recession, and would have led to significant jobs losses in Massachusetts). At any rate, Professor Warren also portrayed herself as a champion of the middle class, often invoking anecdotal stories from constituents relayed to her on the campaign trail. Helping these individuals, she intoned, is the sole reason why she was running for public office. I thought it was effective posturing. Still, one of the problems facing any incumbent is that you have to run on your record -- and defend it. And while I thought Senator Brown explained himself rather well this evening, he did spend an inordinate amount of time on the defensive.

Scott Brown: Despite the fact that Mr. Brown nearly missed the debate this evening, there can be no doubt that he was fired up and ready to go. Perhaps because he is a seasoned debater, or perhaps because he simply enjoys the challenge, the junior Senator from Massachusetts looked relaxed, collected, and confident. And he didn’t waste any time sparring with his Democratic challenger. Within the first few minutes of the debate, for example, he assailed Professor Warren’s character for “checking the box” -- as he phrased it -- thereby misrepresenting her ethnic heritage for the explicit purpose of advancing her academic career. When Warren retorted that the “dozens” of administrators who had hired her said they didn’t know she was Native American until after she began teaching, Brown coolly responded with this zinger: “[Professor Warren has refused to] release her personnel records, and I think that speaks volumes.” Case closed. In any case, throughout the evening Brown made damn sure that everyone watching knew he was ranked the “second most bipartisan Senator in Washington,” a little known fact he often brings up on the campaign trail as well during television interviews. This is Brown’s bread and butter, so to speak, and will likely resonate well with the independent minded Massachusetts electorate. But the biggest theme Scott Brown hammered home tonight was that Elizabeth Warren’s solution to every single problem facing America is raising taxes. Indeed, according to Brown, her tax plan was pegged by the U.S. Chamber of Congress as the “greatest threat to free enterprise.” This was a stunning revelation, to put it charitably. “Can you imagine 100 Professor Warren’s distributing blame and raising taxes,” he said in his closing statement. No, thank goodness I cannot.

A few parting thoughts:

(1) I would be remiss not to weigh in on the discussion surrounding women’s issues, to which the moderator (unsurprisingly) devoted an entire segment to. It’s worth noting, too, that Scott Brown -- by his own admission -- is a “pro-choice, moderate Republican.” So there’s that. However, one of the most contentious arguments broke out when Warren asserted that Brown voted against a bill that would give women “equal pay for equal work.” She plainly declared that women cannot rely on Brown “some of the time” (he supports Roe vs. Wade, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and combat roles for women in the armed services); they need a Senator to represent them “all of the time.” Brown’s response was heartfelt. He began his rebuttal by describing his early childhood, in which he grew up in a broken home and spent many nights defending his hapless, single mom from an abusive step-father. He talked about his wife and two daughters, and how equality under the law is one of the central political issues he fights for and believes in every single day. “You should stop scaring women,” he said. “[I’ve been defending them] since I was six years old.”

(2) Both candidates (except in the opening segment, as I described earlier) were exceedingly cordial and respectful. Both referred two each other as “nice” people on more than one occasion. When Scott Brown learned, for example, that one of Elizabeth Warren’s brothers served honorably in the United States military, embarking on more than 200 combat missions during his career, Brown explicitly asked Warren if they could meet. (Incidentally, Brown is currently serving as a Colonel in the Army National guard). It was a moment of levity in an otherwise heated race; a spectacle I suspect most voters appreciated


If anything, tonight’s debate reinforced the obvious -- namely, this is going to be (perhaps) the most contested Senate race of 2012. Both candidates were extremely well prepared, and despite Warren’s relative inexperience, surprisingly on message. As I wrote earlier today, there have been five polls released this week, four of which show Warren holding a razor thin lead. Will tonight’s debate shake-up the race -- or will this seemingly endless horserace continue unabated?

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