On Wednesday, Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren faced off in their third and penultimate debate for about 55 minutes at Springfield Symphony Hall in western Massachusetts. Of the three debates so far, this was the most substantive in terms of policy, most likely because not a single second was wasted discussing Warren's ancestry and previous claims to Cherokee heritage. Kudos to the moderator for shying away from that played topic.
The debate came in the wake of a new WBUR/Mass Live poll showing Brown with a four point lead over Warren 47% to 43%. When respondents who have not fully made up their minds but who are leaning toward one candidate are included, Brown's lead dropped to three. This senate race is already the most expensive race in state history, and is also the most expensive congressional race in the nation and will likely remain so. In a year in which Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in the senate, they are perhaps nowhere more vulnerable in Massachusetts — one of the bluest states in the nation.
There was nothing particularly new or novel in this debate, and there were no memorable blunders such as Brown's confession in the previous debate that Antonin Scalia is his model Supreme Court justice. The moderator asked several questions that begged for substantive responses, but the candidates were often vague in their responses, trying to gloss over their policy prescriptions (or lack thereof) with cliches and rhetoric. I really can't stand to hear the term "middle class" again. I really can't. Tonight the moderator tried to put his foot down by asking the candidates what they meant by "middle class," but I'm no closer to an understanding of this elusive entity than I am of neurobiology.
On taxes it was the usual hullaballoo. Brown says he won't raise taxes under any circumstances, in line with his signing of Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. Warren insisted that everyone should pay their fair share, meaning that millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations should pay more taxes, and that's Brown's approach is to cut taxes for those at the top, "and let the chips fall where they may." Brown responded by saying if taxes are raised on corporations — even if it's to get rid of tax breaks for oil companies — the hikes will be passed onto the consumer. I'll remember that line next time my local Exxon raises prices at the pump:
"Um, excuse me. You can't raise prices on me because I will just have to pass the cost on to others; in this case by not buying products I otherwise would have, but now cannot because I'm paying more at the pump."
Brown also reiterated his claim the Obamacare would harm seniors by cutting Medicare. Warren pointed out that the AARP — you know, that virulently anti-old people cabal — supported the president's health care plan.
Brown has said that government does not create jobs. But this doesn't jive with his reasons for wanting to protect military bases in Massachusetts, and weapons systems made in the state, which include the need to protect local. Just like his failed effort with John Kerry to save the backup engine for the F-35 fighter jet that was made at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Brown's words tonight are an implicit admission that federal government is entirely capable of creating jobs. Not only that, Brown has shown himself willing to see that government continues creating jobs.
Warren slammed Brown and the Republicans for wanting to cut education, saying instead we should be investing in "our children and grandchildren," specifically by supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and Head Start programs. Warren said that state and local education officials need a good federal partner to help cultivate students who are prepared to succeed.
On foreign policy, the candidates were asked what the U.S. should do about the Syrian revolution, and Iran's nuclear program. Warren said she supports sanctions on Syria and that President Bashar al-Assad "needs to go." On Iran, Warren also supports sanctions and said that Iran must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. Brown brought up an old quote from Warren in which she said that the U.S. needed to take a "nuanced" approach on Iran, which apparently he's against. But newsflash for Senator Brown: All good foreign policy is nuanced. Brown also said that there's only one candidate in the race that stands with Israel. Metternich he is not.
Throughout the debate, as in the two previous ones, Brown reiterated that is one of the most bipartisan senators, and is a moderate who's willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats. As proof, he pointed to his vote for the Dodd-Frank financial financial reform act, which in part created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was Warren's brainchild.
From a substantive perspective, Warren handily won this debate because the fact of the matter is, her views are more in line with the Massachusetts electorate than Brown's. But Brown is good at masking his lack of policy depth and unpopular positions — such as his stance that he won't vote to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year unless those above that level are also included — under a veneer of indignant-sounding debate responses that project confidence to anyone who isn't actually paying attention to what is actually being said.