Way More Mr. Nice Guy
Scott Brown rode his pickup, barn coat, and genuine likability all the way to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Two years later the charm offensive is back and bigger than ever. But can Brown convince Massachusetts voters to return him to Washington just because he’s a good man?
Scott Brown hangs with some future constituents at the Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester. (Photo by Getty Images)
The first time I met Scott Brown was back in December, before I’d started reporting this story. I’d had a couple of martinis at a holiday party in Quincy when my father-in-law, a Republican business owner and Brown campaign contributor, walked up and announced he had someone he wanted me to meet.
To my surprise, there stood the senator, wearing his famous brown barn coat. We exchanged hellos, and in my next breath I said something about how it seemed as though the Republicans needed to get a handle on the Tea Party. Just the day before, the Senate had voted 89–10 to extend unemployment benefits and the temporary payroll tax cut for two months. Given the struggling economy, it seemed a smart, pragmatic, and, judging by the vote, nonpartisan move. But suddenly the House of Representatives was balking at passing the bill. Conventional wisdom was that the House was buckling to pressure from the same Tea Party members whose brinkmanship had already provoked a near government shutdown in April and the debt-ceiling crisis a few months later.
Brown may have split with the Tea Party on that issue, but he wasn’t prepared to criticize the group. “It’s the Democrats’ fault,” he told me. This seemed preposterous, so I asked Brown why he’d defend the Tea Party, given its growing hostility toward him for his occasional willingness to vote with Democrats. He just stood there silently. If he was caught off guard or insulted, he didn’t show it. My father-in-law abruptly decided that this would be a good time to introduce his prize visitor to other party guests, and led him away.
Despite my cheekiness and the senator’s peculiar take on whom to fault for the Congressional standoff, I came away from the encounter liking Brown. Talking to him had been like arguing with some guy in a bar. There wasn’t a hint of stuffiness in him, unlike what one might expect from the moneyed Ivy Leaguers the commonwealth has a habit of sending to the Senate.
In any case, by the next day, Brown had apparently changed his mind about where blame for the impasse lay. “The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” he said in a statement. So why fault the Democrats the night before? It’s possible he assumed I was a Republican and that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. (His fundraising letters to Republicans are full of warnings about the left-wing radicalism and Hollywood financing of his opponent, Elizabeth Warren.) Most likely, though, Brown simply recognized an opportunity to play up his maverick credentials and shrewdly seized it.
Tailoring the message to the audience isn’t unusual for a politician, but Brown has a more difficult challenge come November. To win, he’ll have to leverage his genuine likability to convince supporters of President Obama to also cast their ballots for him rather than for Warren, whom he typically paints as an elitist, carpetbagging, anti-capitalist Harvard egghead.