In law school, the worst sin you can commit as a freshman is to come to class unprepared. Scott Brown came very close to looking unprepared for Professor Warren’s class. He was tentative, smirked inappropriately, and often glanced down at his notes.
During their third debate Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren was much more at ease than Brown and more confident than in either of their first two encounters. Facing no Native American questions, she went after Brown on every question. She scored on his voting against three jobs bills, arguing that a Republican-controlled government would mean lower funding for public schools, and that he uses a study against her that came from a group that had called Ted Kennedy “public enemy number one.”
This race has a sizable gender gap and Warren exploited it in her best performance of the night, and possibly in the campaign. She said he had “one chance to support equal pay for equal work” and he voted no, “one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control and other health services for women” and he voted no, and “one chance to support a pro-choice woman from Massachusetts for the Supreme Court,” Elena Kagan, and he voted no.
Brown’s response was both snarky and irrelevant. He said he didn’t vote for Warren’s boss (Kagan) and said, as he does whenever the subject of women comes up, that he lives in a houseful of women. Warren, for the first time, spoke of her family, calling herself a mother and grandmother and referred mysteriously to “Bruce.”
An unsteady Brown said he agreed with Warren several times and congratulated her on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she helped create, but took credit for passage of the Dodd-Frank law that regulates the behavior of Wall Street and big banks. That boast was met with boos.
Brown seemed eager to establish three things: that he could name and had visited every military base, restaurant and politician west of Route 495. He has been a selectman, assessor, state senator and U.S. Senator, in other words, he’s a lifelong pol. And that he seems to be most confident talking about being a career military man who spends a lot of time visiting bases in the state.
Brown backed off his earlier frequent and snide use of “Professor Warren,” but seemed to say in a poorly worded charge that the rising cost of higher education was Warren’s fault because of her high salary at Harvard Law School. This is a state with 200 universities, colleges and community colleges, with 128,000 faculty and almost 525,000 enrolled students. Brown was playing with political fire in attacking a member of a major Massachusetts industry, especially in a debate near many college towns in the western part of the state.
Brown’s message was simplistically, “I’m not going to raise taxes on anyone in Massachusetts or the country.” He underscored his point by noting that he signed the no-taxes-ever pledge of notorious hard-line D.C. lobbyist Grover Norquist. After Warren mentioned lobbyists, Brown zinged her for employing as her chief strategist, Doug Rubin, calling him “Massachusetts premier lobbyist.”
For reasons known only to Warren and her campaign, she once again failed to link Brown to Mitt Romney, whose name was spoken only once — by Warren. Similarly, she did not hammer Brown consistently on what his election will mean to the makeup of the U.S. Senate, namely make it more likely to be controlled by the GOP.
The debate was carried live in eastern Massachusetts only by WBUR-FM and New England Cable News. With a modest audience, it’s unlikely the debate moved the needle on the polling scale. Warren may have won, but not many voters saw it.
Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.