She listened, she learned, and took a big step forward. For weeks, many sympathetic to Elizabeth Warren’s US Senate candidacy have expressed exasperation at her campaign and her candidate skills.
In this, the important first debate against her often affable opponent, incumbent Scott Brown, she more than held her own. Brown, in an overbearing (television hot) assault on what he characterized as her repeated, deceitful use of an illegitimate minority status claim, set the tone for the first half of the debate. And, in his smirks and fidgety gestures, he reminded many viewers of Al Gore in his first 2000 debate with George W. Bush.
In contrast, Warren was warm (and television cool) relaxed, reasonable and focused. She gave her best answer yet to her Native American heritage claim. And without preachiness, she talked tax fairness and criticized Brown for his willingness to hold tax cuts for the middle class hostage to protections for the nation’s wealthiest.
Where she needed to, she linked Scott Brown’s candidacy to what is at stake nationally. She linked women’s reproductive rights to his vote for a Supreme Court justice. She linked environmental concerns to the image of a Republican controlled Senate, which would mean OK Senator Jim Inhofe, who believes global warming to be a “hoax,” becoming chairman of the committee overseeing the EPA. And, when talking about decisions to send our kids off to war or bring them home, she linked Brown to a possible commander-in-chief Mitt Romney. (I don’t think Brown mentioned Romney once.)
If anything, Warren may not have gone far enough. She could and should have hammered at a world in which Brown could be the deciding vote to make Mitch McConnell Majority Leader. That’s an outcome that should scare not just women. Maybe she was coached by her advisors to go easy, lest she come across as too strident, always a problem for female candidates.
When Brown spoke of standing up for his mother against abusive men, I’d have liked to hear Warren praise him for his filial valor, but then express her concern for all the other mothers, daughters and sisters whose rights and protections would be at risk in a Republican-controlled Senate, led by Mitch McConnell.
When Brown dumped on Justice Elena Kagan’s qualifications, I’d have asked him why his moderate Republican colleagues including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted for her?
After challenging Brown’s facts (on the Blunt amendment) and numbers (re job creation and taxes), she should have invited viewers to turn to non-partisan fact checkers to assess the veracity and falsehood of their claims. (They’re already weighing in and have found Brown’s assertions wanting).
Her worst answer by far was to Scott Brown’s questioning her role in the Travelers Insurance asbestos case settlement, which seemed to take her by surprise , left her somewhat flummoxed and unconvincing in her response. She should have prepared for this.
She was effective in asserting that it is not enough to have a senator you can count on to stand up for you only part of the time. But she missed an opportunity to respond to his charge that Warren would reflexively vote with the Democrats 95% of the time. She also left unanswered his typecasting her as a wind and solar one-note, an alternative energy extremist at odds with even Obama.
Scott Brown, who skipped the spin room post mortems, may have left the debate feeling he successfully reinforced his bipartisan bona fides and branding of “the professor” as an out-of-touch tax-and-spend liberal, but he must also realize that Elizabeth Warren is no Martha Coakley. Elizabeth Warren’s supporters have a lot to be pleased about.
Jon Keller did a good job of moderating the first debate. This is the most high profile Senate race in the country, and its outcome could have profound national implications. In the coming weeks, those likely voters still undecided will have a chance to better understand the candidates, their mettle, and the critical choice at hand.