Why Biography Is Supposed to Matter

You may have heard about the little back-and-forth between Senator Scott Brown and his likely general election opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Briefly, at a debate a questioner noted that Brown paid for college in part by posing nude in Cosmopolitan, then asked the Democratic candidates how they paid for college. Warren joked that she kept her clothes on, and later on a radio show, Brown responded to that by saying, "Thank God." People are understandably mad at him. But as Jon Cohn points out, what Brown said next is troubling in a different way:

Bottom line is, you know, I didn't go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks. And I did whatever I had to do to pay for school. And for people who know me, and know what I've been through, mom and dad married and divorced four times each. You know, some real challenges growing up. You know, whatever. You know, let them throw stones. I did what I had to do. But not for having that opportunity, I never would have been able to pay for school, and never would have gone to school, and I wouldn't probably be talking to you. So, whatever.

The "school of hard knocks" Brown attended was actually Tufts University, which I hear is pretty rough and dangerous. And Warren didn't go to Harvard, though she does teach there today, and her circumstances growing up were about as modest as Brown's. But here's the real point: The reason these biographical details allegedly matter is that they're supposed to offer voters information that will allow them to predict what a candidate will do once he or she is in office. Otherwise, they're utterly irrelevant. When a candidate tells us he grew up poor, he's saying that he understands the struggles people go through, and that as a public official, his actions will reflect that understanding. When Brown says he's a reg'lar fella because he has a pickup truck and Warren is a snooty elitist because she teaches at Harvard, he's making an argument that they would be different senators because of that, and his actions will be more helpful to ordinary folks, while Warren's actions would be more helpful to elites.

But that connection won't be drawn unless reporters demand it. So when a candidate like Brown talks about his B.A. in hardknockology, the next question should be, "Can you explain how your votes in Congress come from that experience? And if you believe Warren is a representative of the elite, can you explain how the things she proposes to do will serve the elite more than regular people?" Because it sure looks like Scott Brown is a senator not unlike your typical Republican, which means that his concerns run to freeing corporations from the burden of regulation and freeing the wealthy from the burden of taxation. Perhaps he could make an argument that that's a mischaracterization of his record. But he won't have to if nobody asks.