What Scott Brown Needs To Do To Beat Elizabeth Warren

scott brown and elizabeth warrenScott Brown/Elizabeth Warren debate photo by WEBN-TV on Flickr

Elizabeth Warren gave voters in the middle little solace during the first two debates against Scott Brown. Her rhetoric reflects the attitude of a budding ideologue. Defending bipartisanship is okay for Brown, but Warren essentially ignores it.

The debates have offered her an opportunity to reveal who she is as a person and take off some of the partisan edge. How could that hurt? At this stage, no Democrat would accuse her of selling out. Her performances have been predictable and uneventful because she’s sticking to a national script, contrary to her aw shucks claims that she’s “not a politician.”

Those in attendance at the last debate at UMass Lowell got a glimpse of the unscripted Warren—and it wasn’t all that bad. Her befuddlement over why the Commonwealth hasn’t yet produced a female senator was honest, drawing laughter from Brown supporters as well as her own. For a moment she wasn’t resorting to populist rhetoric, but just being herself. Sadly, that window quickly shut as her closing statement reverted back to her well-worn playbook.

As in the initial debate, the first part of the discussion at UMass-Lowell was spent revisiting her questionable Cherokee ancestry claims. It shows Warren’s heritage will continue to detract from the larger picture—it’s remarkable that her campaign hasn’t put this distraction in the rearview—including some of the issues that she tries to use in debates to diminish Brown’s still-growing personal popularity. Some of those issues are legitimate discussion points worthy of examination, and some are cynical political connivances that distort Brown’s record.

For example, the hyperbole Warren used in both debates that Brown is a defender of “big oil” echoes a theme President Obama stumbled through in his first debate against Mitt Romney—and muddles a potentially legitimate debate about energy policy. Warren’s charge stems from Brown’s vote against a Senate bill in March that would have eliminated tax preferences for oil producers. Four Democrats helped kill the measure, which failed 51-47. The Republicans’ cover for the vote was that the end of the subsidy would amount to a tax increase passed to consumers already dealing with high gas prices. The US tax code has included preferences for oil producers since 1916, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Moreover, about $16 billion of the $24 billion in tax subsidies for energy production in 2011 went to renewable sources of energy and about $2.5 billion went to fossil fuels. This doesn’t mean, however, that the elimination of preferences for oil companies isn’t a legitimate debate point.  This is especially so since preferences for renewables expired at the end of 2011 and have yet to be extended.

On the cynical side, Warren partially bases her claim that Brown is waging a “war on women” on his vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act. This argument was made in the WBZ studios but didn’t make it into the UMass-Lowell debate. Warren will, however, likely repeat it in the third debate in Springfield. It follows a national script the Obama Administration trotted out early in 2012. The editorial boards of the Globe, Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune all stated the bill was flawed and would expose employers to a torrent of litigation that would do little to solve real pay disparity problems. Senate President Harry Reid posted the bill knowing it didn’t have the votes. Bipartisanship wasn’t in the DNA of this bill—its language was one-sided. It was created to give candidates, like Warren, a talking point in the fall, which in itself is troubling.

Despite unwavering protestations from Warren to the contrary, Brown has cast votes on material issues against his party. He was one of four Republicans who voted in favor of one of President Obama’s highest-priority “jobs” bills—that would have given tax breaks to companies that brought back jobs from overseas while eliminating tax deductions for companies that sent them abroad. Brown also voted in favor of Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray, the new chair of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, raising howls of protest from the right.

Brown should do a better job of working these into his responses. By now, he knows Warren’s repertoire. It’s inflexible and based on a national—not local—strategy, so there won’t be any surprises … or bipartisanship.