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

This is the third time in less than three weeks Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have squared off in front of a live television audience. As a result, it’s not wholly surprising we heard the same banal talking points -- from both candidates -- on jobs, education, taxes, the deficit, and women’s issues. But it’s also fair to say, too, that the format of this particular debate was markedly different. Given the time restrictions (or perhaps because of the consortium’s prearranged formatting rules) the moderator continued to incessantly fire question after question after question. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I found this arrangement to be exceedingly distracting, counterproductive, and at times difficult to follow -- particularly when he interrupted the candidates during the middle of an answer or rejoinder. I don’t know how other viewers felt watching, but I think the Senate hopefuls handled the rapid-fire interrogation rather well all things considered.


At any rate, let’s analyze both candidates’ performances tonight starting with the incumbent Senator.

Scott Brown delivered a solid performance as usual. Indeed, despite his clear-cut debate win last time around, he never seemed content resting on his laurels. During his introductory remarks, for example, he explained how he had previously lived in western Massachusetts, thus subtly reminding the citizens in attendance that he was by no means a stranger to the area. He also remarked about his frequent visits as their elected representative to host jobs fairs and speak with small businesses -- a rather shrewd way to reach out to left-leaning voters in an otherwise deeply blue part of the state. What’s more, and after rebuffing charges he voted against “three jobs bills” that would have ostensibly created 22,000 jobs in the Commonwealth (a sound bite delivered rather sneeringly by Professor Warren’s during her opening statement) he also explained the real solution to decreasing chronic unemployment in the Bay State: getting the federal government out of “people’s pocketbooks and wallets.” Small businesses, he said, were overtaxed, overregulated, and overburdened by mandates and regulations emanating from Washington. Thus the problem with Professor Warren, in his view, was that her only solution to solving the nation’s fiscal challenges was raising taxes on job creators and small business -- a recipe for disaster during what he repeatedly described throughout the evening as an “economic crisis.”

The candidates also sparred over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Those who think back to the 2010 campaign will remember that Scott Brown was elected to the United States Senate due in part because he vehemently opposed the ratification of Obamacare. He reminded viewers that the president’s “signature” legislative achievement -- once fully implemented -- would create eighteen new taxes and cost American taxpayers nearly $2 trillion. “To think the federal government is going to tell us what to do [when we have the] best doctors, nurses, and hospitals in the world [is unacceptable],” he said. Indeed.

However, when Elizabeth Warren argued that Scott Brown’s was lying about the fact that Obamacare raided “three quarters of a trillion dollars” from Medicare, the Senator failed to offer any rebuttal whatsoever. His surprising lack of rebuttal was a mistake, to say the least, since even the President of the United States has conceded that he planned to pay for his costly new entitlement program with cuts to Medicare. This was clearly a missed opportunity to attack his opponent for supporting a piece of legislation that is deeply unpopular in Massachusetts.

Unlike the previous debate, however, women’s issues played a more prominent role in tonight’s discussion. For instance, during Brown’s initial response to a question about a woman’s “right to choose,” he matter-of-factly stated, “We’re both pro-choice, we both support Roe vs. Wade, [and] there’s no secret about that.” This was an obvious attempt to distance himself from any affiliation whatsoever from the Republican Party’s stringent position on abortion. Still, he reminded viewers that he had been fighting for women’s rights “since he was six years old” (that is, defending his mother and sister from an overbearing and abusive step-father) and would continue to do so if reelected. In my view, however, the most important line Scott Brown delivered tonight was during his closing statement. After arguing that the halls of Congress were becoming increasingly polarized -- and moderate Republicans (such as Dick Lugar) were becoming harder and harder to find -- he offered the following nugget of wisdom: “I’m one of those vanishing breeds of Senators [we need in Washington],” he said. Put simply, in a state where most registered voters do not identify with either major political party -- and who want to see members of Congress working together -- I suspect this talking point might strike a chord.

Elizabeth Warren was on point tonight. And while I wasn’t actually in the debate hall this evening, judging from the crowd’s reaction to her arguments I suspect the audience was overwhelming comprised of liberal Democrats. And clearly, she seemed to feed on this enthusiasm. The Harvard law professor was on the offensive all night, hammering the incumbent time and again for siding with “millionaires and billionaires,” protecting oil subsides “for the rich,” and voting against jobs bills (as discussed above) that would purportedly bring prosperity to a state with 200,000 Americans out of work. At times, I felt Senator Brown was spending all his time deflecting criticism and defending his record -- which, of course, his opponent was all-too-eager to eviscerate. “Whose side are you on,” she shrieked at one point early in the debate. “Millionaires and billionaires or our kids?” Sadly, I think this shameless populism and class warfare rhetoric resonated deeply with those in attendance. Go figure.

Warren also reprised her role as a committed Leftist. During one heated exchange about the role of government, she blithely asserted that in order to lower college costs we need to “invest” (i.e. spend) more money on public education. (She doubled down on these government-centric solutions throughout the evening). Still, her response completely ignored the role the federal government already plays in driving up administrative fees and tuition costs -- a reality Brown (correctly) argued his opponent should understand. (After all, he explained, she received a $350,000 annual salary last year to teach “one class a week.”) In any case, she continued to associate Scott Brown with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. On several occasions, not surprisingly, she suggested that a vote for Scott Brown was tantamount to supporting a Republican majority in the United States Senate, a point of attack I explicitly warned about in my preview post. And while I felt Senator Brown did a good job of reminding viewers he was the “second most bipartisan” lawmaker in Congress, I suspect many undecided voters walked away contemplating the implications of her assertions.


In sum, I don’t think there was a clear “winner” tonight. Both candidates seemed relatively comfortable on stage and no one committed an egregious or lamentable gaffe that will shake up the race. However, the fact that Elizabeth Warren did not have to answer any questions about her false ethnic heritage claims was deeply disappointing. I think character is an issue that should be discussed in every debate, not just when the partisan Massachusetts media decides it’s relevant.

So do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Did Elizabeth Warren succeed in her quest to destroy the incumbent, or, as I argue, was the sparring match more even-handed? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below…

UPDATE - A new Rasmussen poll out today shows Elizabeth Warren edging Scott Brown by two points, 49-47 percent. This is well within the sample’s margin of error.

UPDATE II - Woah: Did government unions fine workers who didn’t show up to support Ms. Warren last night?

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