The Senate Races

09.21.12

The Brown-Warren Debate

You asked for some Senate posts, so we'll start with this one. I watched the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren debate last night. This guy, Adam Reilly of WGBH, seems to give the decision to Warren narrowly. I thought Brown won narrowly.

Two reasons. First, I think the most memorable moment of the evening came toward the end when Brown attacked Warren for supposedly representing Travelers Insurance Co. against asbesos victims. It's actually a lot more complicated than that. She did indeed represent Travelers in a case before the Supreme Court, and she was paid what Brown said she was paid (not that much for a lawyer, but enough by normal people's lights). But Warren was actually working for consumers' interests rather than against them.

Here's how the Boston Globe reported it back in May:

It was also notable because Warren, who has gained fame for defending consumers against big business, was in this case working on behalf of a big business. For her contribution, Warren was paid $212,000 over three years by Travelers, the nation’s largest insurer.

Travelers was fighting to gain permanent immunity from asbestos-related lawsuits by establishing a $500 million trust. The trust would have been divided among current and future victims of asbestos poisoning who had claims against the nation’s largest asbestos manufacturer, Johns-Manville, which had been insured by Travelers before it went bankrupt.

Travelers won most of what it wanted from the Supreme Court, and in doing so Warren helped preserve an element of bankruptcy law that ensured that victims of large-scale corporate malfeasance would have a better chance of getting compensated, even when the responsible companies go bankrupt.

In other words, it was Travelers against Johns-Manville, and at least Warren was on the side of making Johns-Manville put money in the trust. Then, Travelers later won immunity from having to pay out settlements at all, but that was after Warren left the case. That's pretty complicated. But Warren still should have, I think, tried to assume that people have some intelligence and tried to explain it instead of trying to soundbite it away.

Second, I didn't think she was nearly as effective as she could have been in wrapping Mitch McConnell and company around Brown. This came up in the last question, about climate change. Brown said he believed in climate change and a human role in it and supported some kind of melioratve action.

Warren invoked McConnell and Jim Inhofe, the denialist who'd run the environment committee if the Republicans took over, but I felt she could have done it much more strongly: "Yes, Scott Brown thinks these nice things. Bully for him. And you know what? If the Republicans take over the Senate, and he's in a meeting and he tries to say these things, McConnell and Inhofe are going to say to him, 'Okay, Senator, that's nice, thanks for your input, now just go sit in a corner.'" Or something. Something memorable that would get replayed on the news and make this topic the focus of post-debate discussion.

Now, having said all this, what I really imagine is that reactions to the debate were extremely gender-specific. I'd bet she won 80-20 among independent women, and he won 80-20 among independent men. It was that stark.

He has enough of that guy's guy thing going for him. He has the accent and so on. You could easily picture him rhapsodizing about Bobby Orr. She is a little professorial yet at the same time she seems very maternal. Though her bearing is more intellectual than emotional, she still exudes a lot of empathy.

In sum, this debate was probably like most debates, i.e., it didn't change many minds. I think this race will come down in no small part to how much Obama wins the state by. He's up 25-ish points. Even 33 in one recent poll. There will be plenty of ticket-splitters who'll vote Obama-Brown, but there has to be an upper limit. Could be Warren's ace in the hole.