The Magazine

The Natural ­Versus the Phony

Can a politically gifted Republican survive in Democratic Massachusetts?

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Boston
Elizabeth Warren is opening a new campaign office in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. The 63-year-old Harvard law professor is wearing a pink jacket, white blouse, and black pants. After shaking hands with everyone around the parking lot, she chooses a low spot in the pavement in front of the office door to speak to the crowd. Warren is noticeably shorter than the local community leaders who introduce her. She clutches the microphone in her right hand and gestures with her left as she works through her stump speech.

Elizabeth Warren

“I don’t kid myself. I know it’s going to be a fight,” Warren says. Her voice is flat, her rhythm slow and deliberate. “I know it’s going to be tough. I know they’re going to throw everything they possibly can at me. I know this. I know this. But here’s what I want to tell you. I am not afraid.” Warren’s voice gets louder. “I am not afraid.” And more piercing. “I am not afraid!”

And why should she be? Warren is running for senator as a liberal Democrat in Massachusetts, in a year when the liberal Democratic president is up for reelection, and in a state where he’s never been more popular. Her opponent is the 53-year-old incumbent, Scott Brown, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, and the only Republican statewide elected official. Brown won a low-turnout special election in 2010 by driving around the state in his pickup truck, wearing a brown Carhartt jacket. His image as a moderate Republican with blue-collar roots appealed to Democratic-leaning middle-class independents. In Massachusetts, though, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one. Warren ought to be running away with this race.

But Warren’s not running away with this race. The Real Clear Politics poll average shows Warren fewer than 2 points ahead of Brown, and a Rasmussen poll released last week shows the candidates tied. Most observers consider the race a toss-up. At the candidates’ first debate on September 20, a whole cadre of national reporters traveled to Boston to watch. It turns out the year’s most interesting Senate race isn’t in a swing state like Virginia or Ohio but in deep-blue Massachusetts.

The fact is, Scott Brown is one of the most gifted natural politicians in the country, and Elizabeth Warren simply isn’t. 

Warren’s campaign has had its fair share of stumbles. When the media first began asking questions about her claim of Cherokee heritage, especially whether she had used that claim to advance her career, Warren was unclear and contradictory in her answers. Her television advertisements, most of which feature a serious Warren speaking directly to the camera, have fallen flat. Her best ad is a testimonial from a well-known boxing trainer, Art Ramalho of Lowell, who praises the Harvard lawyer from Oklahoma in his thick New England accent. Warren herself doesn’t appear in the ad until halfway through. 

But it’s on the trail that Warren really looks out of her league. At a rally in Roslindale, another Boston neighborhood, Warren is preceded at the podium by Mike Monahan, a leader from the local electrical workers’ union, and Tom Menino, Boston’s Democratic mayor for nearly two decades. Monahan delivers a stemwinder that cuts right at Scott Brown’s blue-collar image.

“Pick-up truck? Carhartt?” Monahan says, pronouncing it Cah-haht. “Don’t let him insult your intelligence. Where’s the cutting oil stains on that Carhartt? Where’s the chalk stains on that Carhartt? Where’s the rip from the rebar tie wire? There’s none, because that jacket or truck has never seen a day’s work.”

Menino, who is officially endorsing Warren, is up next. After mentioning that he knows and likes Brown, he knocks the Republican for being an unprincipled moderate. “If you’re going to represent the people of Massachusetts, you can’t be middle-of-the-road when it comes to trade and jobs for our residents,” Menino says. “You can’t be wishy-washy on housing investment, protecting families from foreclosure. You can’t be on the fence when it comes to federal research dollars that fuel our hospitals and our universities.”

Then Menino delivers the Ted Kennedy endorsement from beyond the grave. “Elizabeth gets my appreciation every time she defends universal health care in a way that would make Teddy proud,” he says.

When it’s Warren’s turn, the union-heavy crowd claps and cheers dutifully. But the speech is a dud. Warren reads from notes, like a professor lecturing her class. She awkwardly name-checks Boston neighborhoods in her slight Oklahoma twang: “From Roslindale to Dorchester, from East Boston to Roxbury .  .  .” She praises Menino for his multiculturalism and political paternalism: “Mayor Menino is beloved in every single community in Boston because he views every single person, regardless of color, race, gender, orientation, or anything else, as part of the family he has watched over during his time in office.”

It’s only near the end that Warren even mentions her own Senate race. “Scott Brown does not always vote the wrong way,” she says ploddingly. “But too often, when it gets right down to it, Scott Brown isn’t with you.”

Once she’s stepped off a stage, Warren looks lost. She tries to turn this into a political asset with self-deprecation. “Can you tell this is the first time I’ve run?” she’ll ask during moments of confusion, like when she’s unsure where to stand for a photo op or a gaggle with the press. In a crowd, Warren will gently shake a voter’s hand between her two palms, like a comforting grandmother.

But Massachusetts voters, including the more than 2 million unaffiliated independents, seem to prefer elected officials who slap backs, talk sports, and go by affectionate nicknames like “Teddy.” And nobody’s calling her “Lizzy.”

‘Hey, Scotty!” a young woman calls out. 

Scott Brown is visiting Sullivan’s, a hot dog stand and a South Boston institution next to the state park on Castle Island. It’s a brisk afternoon, and he’s wearing a jacket from the 2009 Boston Marathon. Brown only had three hours’ sleep before an early morning flight from Washington, where he had been up till two o’clock in the morning voting in the Senate. If he’s tired, though, it doesn’t show as the joggers and park-goers converge around him to get pictures and shake his hand.

Joining Brown at this meet-and-greet is Ray Flynn, Tom Menino’s predecessor at city hall, who left Boston to serve as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican. Flynn is a quintessential Boston Democrat, but more recently he’s been supporting Republicans like Brown. Still, he has a lot of cachet with the working-class Irish Democrats of Southie, the only Boston neighborhood Brown won in 2010.

While Brown orders food for anyone who wants some, Flynn walks around the restaurant to glad-hand. But Brown doesn’t have to seek anyone out; everyone at Sullivan’s seems drawn to him, from the kids working behind the counter to the old folks craning their necks to get a look at the famous senator. He takes the boxes of hot dogs and fries outside to a picnic table, ignoring the cameras and reporters hovering around him.

A tall middle-aged man in a flat cap named Jackie Watts comes over to say hello. Watts, a retired police lieutenant, lives in Chatham now, but he grew up in South Boston and played basketball with a kid named Johnny White. When Watts tells him this, Brown immediately recognizes the name of his basketball coach at Tufts University.

“I used to play at the boys’ club with Johnny,” Watts says.

“With Billy Endicott and those guys? You know those guys?” Brown says. “All nice people.”

“Good people,” Watts agrees.

The next day, when we meet for breakfast at a diner in Brown’s hometown of Wrentham, it’s the same story. No fewer than six people stop by our table to say hello, including a busboy who chats briefly until Brown good-naturedly tells him to “get back to work.” As we try to talk about Warren, an older man walks over and says, “I’m a Democrat, but I’m voting for you.”

Brown says he feels “balanced” about himself and his campaign. He often reminds people, on the stump and in his ads, that he’s one of the most bipartisan members of Congress. “I feel that people are very appreciative of my work ethic and the fact that I’m looking out for their pocketbooks and wallets,” he says between bites of his French toast and bacon. Then Brown shrugs. “But I’m a Republican from Massachusetts.”

A Republican, yes, but also from Massachusetts. “People recognize that I’m from this state,” Brown says. “I grew up here. I married a local Waltham girl. Our kids were born here and go to school here, and I’m probably going to die here.”

Our conversation is soon interrupted again when Brown spots a face he recognizes behind me. “Let me just say hi to this amazing friend of mine,” he says. He bounds out of the booth, arm extended.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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