Clash of the Titans

Brown-Warren Debate

Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren square off in the first of four senatorial debates. Up for grabs is a key seat in the battle control of the U.S. Senate (Photo credit: Boston Globe)

Tensions flare in the key Senate race’s first debate, though neither candidate lands a knockout.

Republicans celebrated Senator Scott Brown as the critical “41st vote” in their effort to stop 2010’s health care reform law. Likewise, Democrats cheered Professor Elizabeth Warren for crafting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) following the 2007 financial crisis. Now competing candidates for U.S. Senate, each has tried to convince Massachusetts voters that the good of the Commonwealth comes before their personal or partisan ambitions. But in the first of four planned debates, neither distinguished themselves as a voice of reason amid strangling congressional gridlock. This one’s a wash.

Moderator Jon Keller of WBZ-TV opened the debate on character rather than issues, setting a tone that largely defined the hour. Senator Brown fired the first shot: “I think character is important,” he remarked, “Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color. And as you can see, she’s not.” His campaign has pursued the bloodline issue with birther-like zeal, implying Warren falsified her background information for professional gain.

In her defense, Warren notes that it’s a topic on which no child questions their parents: “When I was growing up, these were the stories I knew about my heritage.” The Boston Globe reported in April that state records list the professor’s great-great-grandfather as Cherokee, making her 1/32nd Native American. It’s a slim percentage, but Warren never claimed she knew the full extent of her genealogy. Other family members, some unaware of their connection to the candidate, also believed they were part native. In any event, the question has been a non-issue for an electorate more concerned with the country’s economy.

Luckily then, the economic debate proved more substantial. Referring to his opponent as “the professor,” Brown painted her as a liberal elitist determined to bring a “piggy bank” full of new taxes to Washington. “Businesses and individuals are scared right now because of your policies of raising up to $3.4 trillion on the backs of our working citizens,” he charged. Warren replied, “This tax number that the senator has come up with, it’s not real. He’s just made up these numbers.” A MassLive fact check says Brown largely bases his claim on President Obama’s policies, though even then the numbers are murky. Concerning the deficit, Warren invoked Globe analysis showing her plan as more effective.

Shifting tactics, the Senator then called for further tax breaks and spending cuts “to protect the job creators who are getting up in the middle of the night and creating jobs.” Nonsensical wording aside, he may have blundered in so quickly supporting the Republican status quo; Brown’s greatest asset is his bipartisan, everyman image. Instead of suggesting compromise, he gave credence to Warren’s argument that his bipartisanship only runs skin deep. Expect his “midnight job creation” line to appear in Democratic ads soon.

Warren’s proposals also echoed her party, pushing a combination of targeted spending cuts and higher taxes on the super-wealthy to combat federal deficits. “Where Senator Brown is always standing is right over there,” she argued, “with the millionaires, with the billionaires.” Brown likely expected the charge, as he quickly pointed out that the Harvard professor earns a yearly salary of over $300,000 (teaching only one class in 2011). It was a well-made point to which Warren had no immediate counter, potentially undermining her focus on the high cost of higher education. She later said that she began teaching at just $18,000 a year and was proud to have risen to “one of the top teaching spots in the country.”

On jobs, Senator Brown claimed “independent” analysis had given him the clear edge. Unfortunately, the report originated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (a right-leaning lobbying group which overwhelmingly supports Republicans and has already endorsed Brown for re-election) and cited potential Obama administration proposals in lieu of Warren’s. His opponent fired back that his record suggests he’s not serious about creating jobs, having voted against three jobs bills this year. Though time didn’t allow for greater discussion, Brown claimed she misrepresented the content of each bill and called her the “founder of the radical Occupy Wall Street protests.” State Republicans have pushed that last claim for some time now.

The remainder of the debate focused on abortion (each candidate says they’re pro-choice), foreign affairs (each backs Afghan withdrawal), and the environment. On this last topic, Warren opened what may be the pivotal front in the Senate race; should Brown retain his seat and Republicans take the Senate, conservative ideologues may take charge of key congressional posts.

She specifically mentioned Sen. Jim Inhofe, a climate change skeptic who would likely become chairman overseeing the EPA. Senator Brown pointed out that “you’re not running against [him], you’re running against me,” though the broader theme may resonate with voters. It’s increasingly clear that control of the Senate may hinge on contests like Massachusetts, with all the consequence that entails. If Warren can tie a Brown victory to a resurgent Republican Congress, she may convince moderates to back her on Election Day.

Ultimately, neither the Senator nor Professor won the day. He rarely followed-through on his attacks while she allowed too many to slide unchallenged. (Brown’s misleading Travelers Insurance charge, for example, should have been hammered home or refuted—it wasn’t). Warren maintains a slight lead in the latest polls, but one slip on the national stage could sink either’s chances as November closes in. With three more debates to go, it’s still anyone’s race.

I had the pleasure of watching the debate with three-term Massachusetts governor, former presidential candidate, and Northeastern University professor Michael Dukakis sitting next to me. I can’t give you that, but you can view the candidates’ September 20th debate here courtesy of C-SPAN.

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