Round One: Brown vs. Warren

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your Massachusetts Senate race. No matter how much you’ve been paying attention to the last year of campaigning on the part of both candidates, their performance in last night’s debate did its part to snap the electorate to attention. It was a rousing back and forth that touched on a wide range of issues and a reminder: People, we have an election our hands!

Both Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren came in over-prepared for their first meeting, and the opening question, which Brown responded to first, teed up so many of his talking points that we, the public, were left reeling. Asked whether a candidate’s character matter in the election, Brown managed to mention his 26 year marriage (wife: check), his two daughters (dad: check), his job as a Senator (incumbent: check), and then steer his answer to the question of Warren’s heritage, noting that she considered herself a “person of color,” who “checked the box” about her background, when “clearly she’s not” Native American (check, check, check). Brown’s own box-checking in that first question alone was impressive. And his aggressive response out of the gate helped set the tone of the debate.

Warren, for her part, looked straight at the camera and set up the contrast early on. Compared with Brown’s more agitated demeanor, she was calmer and more soft spoken, which one can assume was somewhat calculated to ensure she wouldn’t come off as shrill. “I think Scott Brown is a nice guy,” she said, but the race wasn’t about her family, or her job history. “I want the race to be about issues.”  The fact that Brown actually didn’t seem like all that much of a nice guy only underscored her point. Brown continued to hammer Warren on her employment records, squeezing every last drop out of an issue that is a favorite among conservatives, but has proven to not matter much to voters.

From there, the candidates discussed job creation, with Warren pressing Brown for voting down three jobs bills and Brown countering that “the only part of the president’s jobs bill that passed were mine.” Here the theme of the rest of the debate arose: Scott Brown has a voting record that Elizabeth Warren can point to and attack, but since she’s never held elected office, all he can do is look to her personal life and public statements as evidence of her political motives. And while this should, in theory, provide Brown with the edge (he is the incumbent after all), his attempts to create a contrast came off tinny. In a response to a question about taxes, he said “the only person in the race that is hurting people is Warren,” which is odd, because she currently has no oversight of our tax regulations. When asked about abortion issues, and whether a Supreme Court justice should pass a “litmus test” on the matter, he quipped “I’m sorry I didn’t vote for your boss,” explaining why he didn’t support the appointment of former Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan to the court. It came off as snarky. After a question about creating more educational opportunities for the next generation, she talked about expanding public universities, while he talked about her salary at Harvard.

Brown, for his part, did far more to appeal directly to voters, making pointed remarks aimed at union members, motorists (“It cost  me $74 to fill up my truck the other day”), and women, who he said Warren needs “to stop scaring.” But he also looked unsettled, grasping around below the podium for his water, and looking away from the cameras, taking notes while Warren spoke. Warren was far more calibrated. She hewed closer to the time allotted for each response, had her talking points prepared, and didn’t toss barbs or reorient the conversation to the extent Brown did. But she also failed to completely rebut some of Brown’s arguments. In several cases, she responded to Brown’s claims about taxes or job creation by saying they were untrue, yet she failed to elaborate. And when he brought up her work as a consultant for Travelers Insurance, which was dealing with the fallout of a series of asbestos lawsuits, she didn’t provide a strong counterpoint (which may be in large part because the fact of the matter are murky), only saying that, “I’ve been out there working for people who have been injured by big corporations.”

Most instant analysis after the debate called it a draw, but I’d give Warren the edge, in part because she seemed so much more comfortable behind the podium. But no matter where you fall, it’s nice to know we finally have a fight on our hands.