Boston — I went into Thursday night’s debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren wondering whether the Cherokee thing would come up. After all, the story’s a few months old, and you’d think the moderator would do everything he could to avoid such a peripheral issue, right? Hah. I barely had time to plug in my computer before Brown was reminding the audience of Warren’s ethnic confusion, and of what that said about her character. His initial assault set the mood for the rest of the debate, an hour of cordial tension and pointed criticism.
“I think that Senator Brown is, um, a nice guy,” Warren began before launching into an explanation of how her family stories informed her racial identity. “This is my family, this is who I am, and it’s not going to change,” she said. Another thing that’s not going to change: the status of her personnel records from Harvard, which she’s staunchly refused to release, despite Brown’s contention that those records are the only way to demonstrate that she didn’t capitalize on her supposed heritage.
And tensions didn’t really simmer down after that exchange. Warren argued that Brown cared more about big businesses than about the working class, given his opposition to several Senate jobs bills. “It was a bipartisan rejection,” he snapped, “political votes put up just to score points so you could talk about it today.”
And that epitomizes the primary clash of the debate: Warren stated, over and over and over, that she wanted to protect working families and make corporations pay their fair share. Brown criticized the professor for her comfort with tax hikes on job creators and defended his legacy of pushing for lower taxes. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Warren could have gotten herself in trouble with one of her assaults on Brown’s record. She stressed that he supported “subsidies” for oil companies, and brought up several times that the top five of these corporations make a cumulative $137 billion in profits every year. Once she added that the government’s efforts to keep the price of gas low stifle the impetus to develop alternative energy.
There are several problems here. First, these “subsidies” are really tax subsidies, or targeted tax breaks, and none of them are specifically restricted to oil companies. Second, it’s telling that Warren artfully dodged the truth about these tax breaks: They lower gas prices, and thus help all the working families that buy gas. Third, and relatedly, she actually treated higher gas prices as a good thing, because they encourage the development of alternative energy. And fourth, Warren herself supports subsidies — real subsidies — for green-energy companies.
The odd thing about Warren’s rhetoric throughout was that she seemed to be consumed with painting herself as a moderate voice of reason. She emphasized the importance of putting the middle class first, called for a “balanced approach” to the fiscal cliff, and held that she was “on the taxpayer’s side.” It’s a significant shift for the woman who initially branded herself as the muse of Occupy, and Brown should make it a hard sell.
“Can you imagine 100 Professor Warrens down there, placing blame and raising taxes?” he asked toward the end of the debate, adding that she said she imagined she’d always toe her party’s line. It’s hard to say whether there was a clear winner or loser, as each candidate seemed primarily focused on lunging for the other’s jugular. They agreed on one thing, though: The outcome of their race could determine who controls the Senate — and the Supreme Court.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.