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Mon October 1, 2012
Brown Versus Warren: Part Deux
I had two big questions heading into tonight's U.S. Senate debate at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. First: Would Scott Brown lose the twitchy, aggressive demeanor that made him (in my opinion) the default loser of his first tilt with Elizabeth Warren? And second: Would Warren offer concise, clear explanations about controversial legal work she's done in the past — or get bogged down in abstract legal issues?
Let's start with Brown. I split my time watching the debate between the hall itself and the media room. In both those venues, it seemed clear that Brown was far mellower than he'd been at the WBZ debate. There was no lip-licking, glancing at the ground or laughs of exasperation (at least that I saw). In fact, Brown was more poised than Warren for most of the night. On a couple occasions, Warren grew visibly flustered when host David Gregory wouldn't let her counter Brown's remarks. At one point, Warren's desire to say more than she was permitted led her to talk over Brown as he spoke — prompting what I'm guessing was a pre-prepared Brown zinger: "Excuse me, I'm not a student in your classroom." At WBZ, Brown's over-the-top presentation would have made that jab feel bombastic; tonight, it just felt pointed.
As for Warren's ability to speak clearly and forcefully about the legal work she's done for companies like Travelers and LTV ... let's just say it remains a work in progress. When Brown first brought up those two related topics tonight, Warren began her response thusly: "I'm a teacher. I'm a consumer advocate." Then, slooooooowly, she felt her way toward an explanation of why she did the work in question. But by the time she finally got to her best defense on the Travelers matter — i.e., that asbestos victims and their attorneys supported her work at the time — way too much time had passed.
I truly have no idea why Warren can't do better. I'm no attorney, but my response would be something like this: "Let's start with Travelers. The company agreed to set up a trust to compensate victims of mesothelioma, a truly horrific illness. Most victims backed the arrangement. Then people began to seek restitution outside that framework — and it threatened to leave everyone empty-handed." Would that be so hard?
That said, Warren didn't totally lose the battle to define her extra-academic legal work. At one point in their exchange on this topic, Brown actually spoke the following words: "Let's say she's correct on the asbestos matter."
Read that again and let it sink in: "Let's say she's correct on the asbestos matter." Ever since the WBZ debate, Warren's work for Travelers — which Brown claims pitted her against asbestos victims — has been Exhibit A in Brown's case that Warren's alleged fealty to the Little Guy is fictitious. In that one sentence, though, Brown came close to admitting that, upon review, he may actually have gotten the Travelers thing wrong. In the coming days, keep an eye on whether Brown quietly tries to let the Travelers matter drop.
I'd be remiss here if I didn't mention how effectively Brown casts himself as outside the fundamentally partisan structure of Washington. Pressed by Gregory on compliments he'd previously directed at Mitt Romney, Brown said he "absolutely" prefers Romney's economic policies to President Obama's — but promptly added, "As an independent, I take it case by case." (I may be paraphrasing, but that's pretty close.) Asked if he'd back Mitch McConnell's re-election as Senate president, meanwhile, Brown said he's told McConnell that "he has a lot of work to do to earn my vote. That's the beauty of being independent."*
Of course, Brown isn't an independent. He's a Republican whose election could guarantee GOP control of the Senate. But after hammering that point home in Debate #1 — remember that exchange about how Brown's election could hand the EPA to Jim Inhofe? — Warren made it far less forcefully this evening. Since Brown's chances of re-election hinge on whether voters see him as an independent voice or as a reliable GOP soldier, I'd expect Warren to redouble her efforts next time around. To succeed, though, she'll need to surprise her opponent somehow — because right now, her attacks on his party affiliation just aren't sticking.
Finally, a word on host David Gregory. I was pretty tough on Gregory on Twitter, contrasting him unfavorably to WBZ's Jon Keller (who moderated the first debate) and suggesting that he was too eager to insert himself into the fray.
In retrospect, I may have been a bit harsh. There were times when Gregory's aggressive pursuit of clarity from Brown and/or Warren yielded telling answers (e.g., asking Brown for his feelings on McConnell.) But I still wish Gregory had taken a page from Keller's book. Too often tonight, it felt like we were watching two simultaneous debates — Brown versus Gregory and Warren versus Gregory. The more the candidates engage each other, and the more the moderator fades into the background, the better.
Readers: your thoughts?
* Sometimes, I grant, Brown's bipartisan self-presentation encounters a hiccup — e.g., when he was asked to name his favorite Supreme Court justice tonight and named what seemed like the entire Supreme Court. But usually he's very effective selling himself as a politician who actually transcends party.