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In First Debate, Brown Gets Personal

"She's obsessed with raising taxes!"

9:26 AM, Sep 21, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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There’s little reason to wonder why Scott Brown, the Republican senator running for reelection in deeply Democratic Massachusetts, is still competitive. In his first debate Thursday night with his opponent, Democrat and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, Brown was funny, scrappy, and on message, displaying his natural political gift that first won over independent voters in 2010.

Brown-Warren

Consider how he responded to one of Warren’s best lines of attack: that Brown, a Republican, has voted to protect tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires” at the expense of the rest of us.

“He has said he will defend the top 2 percent and top 3 percent so that they don’t have to go back to the tax breaks of the Clinton years, and he will hold the other 98 percent of families hostage,” Warren said during a heated back-and-forth. It was typical Warren; looking alternatively at the camera, the moderator, and Brown, she cited facts, figures, and numbers.

But Brown looked right into the camera and spoke directly. 

“I’m not going to raise taxes,” he said in his thick New England accent. “I’m going to protect the pocketbooks and wallets of everybody listening. If you want someone who’s going to spend your tax dollars, give them to Professor Warren. She’ll spend them.”

Warren tried again, knocking her opponent for voting against “three different jobs bills.”

“I don’t understand how Senator Brown could vote against one jobs bill, another one to protect teachers, firefighters, police officers, and a third one for construction workers,” she said, her eyes wide and her head shaking.

“The three jobs bills that she refers to, with all due respect, would have raised your taxes 450 billion dollars,” Brown said, emphasizing the words. “The criticism that you’re hearing from Professor Warren and her supporters is that I don’t want to raise taxes. Guilty as charged.” 

Throughout the debate, Brown kept alive the charge that Warren is a tax-and-spend liberal. “Folks,” he said in a way Warren could never. “She’s obsessed with raising taxes!” 

Even with the issue of abortion, on which both candidates broadly agree but the Democrats have a built-in advantage, Brown was able to come out ahead. After Warren criticized the moderately pro-choice Brown for his votes against Elena Kagan for Supreme Court justice and more broadly against “women’s rights,” Brown chastised her to “stop scaring women.” 

“Listen, I’ve been fighting for women’s rights since I was six years old, since I had to battle when my mom was being abused by one of my stepfathers,” Brown said. “So I’ve been fighting for women for a long, long time.” It was a one-two punch, reminding voters of Brown’s difficult, blue-collar background while blunting criticism that the Republican is “anti-woman.”

To be sure, all this straightforwardness isn’t exactly winning the race for Brown. Some polls have him behind Warren, some ahead by small margins, and the average gives Warren the lead. The truth is, the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that far outnumber Republicans in Massachusetts have a lot to like in Warren’s message. Higher taxes for the rich, more federal dollars heading to Massachusetts, and justice for the little guy against the big corporate interests—what’s not to like for a New England liberal? 

It may be Warren herself. For her part, she looked comfortable in her role as liberal, well-meaning egghead, but she seemed to shrink away from the fiery populism on display in her speech to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Warren looked discouraged early on in the debate, when Brown transformed a question about his personal attacks on her claim to Cherokee heritage as a question of Warren’s honesty.

“When you are a United States Senator, you have to pass a test, and that’s one of character and honesty and truthfulness,” Brown said. “And I believe, and others believe, that she’s failed that test.”

Warren’s response was muted and defensive. “If Senator Brown wants to raise an issue about my character, then I’ll lay it out there,” she said, her voice steady and unemotional. “When I was growing up, these were the stories I knew about my heritage. I believed my mother and my father and my aunts and my uncles, and I never asked anybody for any documentation. I don’t know any kid who did. But I did know this about my parents, that my mother and dad loved each other very, very much and they wanted to get married. And my father’s family said ‘no,’ because my mother was part Delaware and part Cherokee.”

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