Unless you live in Massachusetts—or maybe even if you do—you probably missed the Elizabeth Warren/Scott Brown debate last night. That’s too bad, because it was a kick-ass debate—a model for political debates—run by Jim Madigan, from Springfield, Massachusetts’s public television station. (I know, I know—like Big Bird, he has to be careful, lest Romney fire him.) Here’s the truly groundbreaking part: Madigan actually moderated. He asked substantive questions about policy, drawn from those voters sent in. He kept the candidates to strict time schedules, giving them 20 seconds here and 5 seconds there, forcing them to articulate their beliefs quickly and crisply. He actually cut Brown off mid-sentence as Brown meandered around one point. Imagine that! As the debate went on, they started speed-talking to beat the clock. There was no time for Scott Brown to hurl his ludicrous accusations about Warren’s ancestry, although he did go ad hominem as often as he could. But we actually heard about their political philosophies and ideal policies. Imagine that!
I’m not going to recap every point (the Harvard Crimson, interestingly enough, has an excellent report, as does Luke Johnson at HuffPo), but I will touch on a few of their themes. Warren stressed, over and over, her belief in investing in Americans, in giving people opportunities, so that they could succeed and give back. When Brown accused her of making too much money at Harvard (!! Republicans oppose high salaries now? !!), Warren repeated that she went to public colleges and was proud of her success—and wanted the next generation to have the same opportunities that she had. She said repeatedly that Scott Brown stood with “millionaires and billionaires” against ordinary people, pledging to protect them from paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. She kvelled with pride in the launch of her baby the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, saying it had saved $1 billion for consumers in its first year. Over and over, she tied him to Romney and the rest of the Republican Party, slashing away at his self-pronounced independence. Her most impressive moment of the night came when she said:
He had one chance to vote for equal pay for equal work, and he voted no. He had one chance to vote to mandate that health-insurance companies cover contraception, and he voted no. And he had one chance to vote to put a pro-choice woman on the Supreme Court, and he voted no.
Just in case she hadn’t made her point clear, she drove it home, saying that the women of Massachusetts deserved someone who voted for them all of the time, not some of the time. Watch for the commercials.
Brown, meanwhile, announced that he was proud to have signed the Grover Norquist pledge on no new taxes, and stressed that he would make sure you get to keep your money. He noted his support for a balanced budget amendment and for repealing the ACA. He repeatedly name-checked towns and political figures in western Massachusetts, lest we forget just for a second that he was from here and she wasn’t. His repeat-line was that he would not vote to take more of your money in taxes “in the middle of a three-and-a-half year recession.” (That line drives me up a wall, since it falsely alleges that the entire recession has been on President Obama’s watch. Technically, the Great Recession started under W. and ended in 2009, under Obama. Yes, it’s been a long, slow, painful recovery, but can someone call him out on his inaccuracies, please?) He touted his service in the National Guard and announced hawkish policies on Iran. If you were a Republican, you could easily have come away believing that he won.
But both of them did a great job. Seriously.
In the first debate, Brown completely lost his cool, all but snarling at her, visibly upset. In the second, he was smooth and senatorial-looking—so much so that I honestly wonder if he got Botox injections to ensure that his face would look so imperturbably Roman and above the fray—but he spoke with so much snarky condescension that I thought it had to be hurting him, with young women in particular. This time, he answered cogently and coherently, making his points succinctly. Warren, meanwhile, gave her best performance of the three debates. She was warm, passionate, genuine; her smiles were open and welcoming; she clarified her beliefs in ways that, mostly, didn't sound like soundbites, and tied Brown to his record; and it was obvious that she wanted to go into public service to make things fair for ordinary Americans. In their bearing and attitudes, they both looked like U.S. Senators to me. I'd call it a tie.
The polls have them neck and neck, with any differences falling into the margin of error. Given that those in the middle or as-yet-undecided will vote not based on clear political philosophies but on personalities, I don’t think this debate will make either one into a clear frontrunner. The race will come down to turnout: who can get more of his or her voters to the polls?
Meanwhile, could Elizabeth Warren please give the president some debating lessons? Or, maybe, take over as Obama’s designated hitter next Tuesday if Bill Clinton is out with an injury? And could Jim Madigan moderate the next presidential debate?
Here’s the video so you can see for yourself:
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