Worst debate ever?

David Gregory

The second Senate debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren ended a little while ago. And though I thought they both had their moments, with Brown a bit better than he was in the first debate, the entire affair was overwhelmed by the ego-driven, substance-free performance of moderator David Gregory.

He opened with the Native American thing because, you know, we haven’t heard it before. Near the end, he asked if the candidates thought the Red Sox should bring back Bobby Valentine. He preened about Simpson-Bowles like the Beltway insider that he is (Paul Krugman explains). And he turned what should have been a substantive discussion about real issues into a fiasco.

All in all, a miserable performance.

Update: Some smart instant analysis by Adam Reilly of WGBH.

Photo (cc) by Peter Bond and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Brown-Warren race and the ghosts of a 2010 poll

With today’s Boston Globe poll reporting that Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren leads Sen. Scott Brown by five points, get ready for Brown’s defenders to dredge up an infamous Globe poll from two years ago — the one that showed Attorney General Martha Coakley leading Brown, a Republican, by 15 points.

Globe-bashers like Howie Carr love to point to that earlier poll as a sign of the paper’s liberal bias — and I’ll predict right now that that will be the subject of Carr’s next column in the Boston Herald.

In fact, Globe polls are not Globe polls — they are conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, a respected, independent polling operation.

So what went wrong in 2010? My theory: Nothing. The story about that earlier poll is protected behind a paywall (I’m a subscriber, so I’ve reread the whole thing). But as you can see from this excerpt, the poll was conducted between Jan. 2 and 6, and the election to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by Ted Kennedy’s death was held on Jan. 19.

Thus it’s likely that the poll was accurate when it was conducted. People were just getting back to their normal routines coming out of the holidays. The race broke very late for Brown. By the time the story was published, on Jan. 10, the race was already trending away from Coakley, and within days, other polls were reflecting that.

What does that mean for Brown now?

First, the margin of error in the new poll, which shows Warren with a 43 percent to 38 percent lead, is 4.4 percent. In other words, if the election were held tomorrow, Brown could beat Warren by several points without calling the validity of the poll into question. The race is still essentially tied.

Second, this is not a low-turnout special election, and as the Globe story notes, Brown faces some harsh realities. By wide margins, people like Brown and like the job he’s doing — but they are increasingly leaning toward Warren because of the enormous enthusiasm among Massachusetts voters for President Obama. I suspect you would not be able to get Brown to utter the words “Mitt Romney” these days even if he were being waterboarded.

Third and most important: It’s still early. No, it’s not as early as it was during the pre-Labor Day period, when you could argue that most people weren’t paying attention. But it’s early enough for things to change dramatically if Warren stumbles badly. That’s why I think Brown is making a mistake by putting a torch to his nice-guy image with his continued attacks on Warren’s claim that she’s part-Native American.

David Bernstein of The Phoenix offers some further analysis of the Globe poll. And Nate “The Great” Silver of the New York Times takes a deep look at conservative claims of liberal bias in polling — and buries the assertion in an avalanche of well-marshaled data.

Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Warren needs a better answer on asbestos case

Coming out of Thursday night’s WBZ-TV (Channel 4) debate between Republican senator Scott Brown and his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, I thought the issue that could have the most resonance was Brown’s accusation that Warren profited from a legal case that harmed victims of asbestos exposure. Warren didn’t handle the question well, and the matter was left hanging.

Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman wrote about the case in May. It is convoluted, to say the least. In essence, though, Warren was paid $212,000 by Travelers Insurance to argue that the insurer should be immune from future asbestos lawsuits in return for setting up a $500 million trust fund to compensate victims. The liability belonged to Travelers because Johns-Manville, the company that actually manufactured the asbestos, had gone bankrupt.

Later, after Warren no longer had anything to do with the case, another court ruled that Travelers did not have to pay out the $500 million. So the victims got nothing. Warren told the Globe:

My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible, terrible disaster. It’s heart-wrenching that there are new victims every year…. I think they should be compensated. That’s it for me. That’s what this is all about.

She added that the principle she was fighting for — a provision in bankruptcy law that would allow the establishment of trust funds for victims in return for no further legal liability — was “a critical tool for making sure that people who’ve been hurt have a fair shot at compensation.”

Brown is scheduled to discuss the asbestos case with reporters later this morning. Warren needs a better answer.

Overall, I thought Warren came across well — focused, substantive and calm, if a bit repetitive. Brown was snide and personal. Moderator Jon Keller began by inviting Brown to comment on Warren’s character, and Brown chose to go all-in on Warren’s claim that she’s part Native American. Senator, there are people who will do that for you — and have been doing that for you.

Here is my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, writing for the Huffington Post:

The opening debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown … at times felt like the classroom dynamic between an earnest, soft-spoken high school English teacher and the defiant jock who plants himself in the back row and makes sour faces until the bell rings. Although the teacher never quite subdued her student, neither did he manage to get the better of her.

And how good a moderator is my friend Keller? Other than keeping the conversation moving, you barely knew he was there. In other words, a first-rate job.

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Getting pumped for the Brown-Warren debate

Like all political junkies, I’m looking forward to tonight’s U.S. Senate debate between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. (Assuming it comes off.)

The first debate is often the most important in terms of drawing the biggest audience and establishing a story line. So I’m glad that this one will be moderated by political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4). Keller, a fair-minded centrist who doesn’t mind delivering an occasional zing, is good at keeping things moving while not cutting people off. Among the things I won’t miss: a panel of journalists and a timer.

Recent polls have been all over the place, showing Warren unexpectedly taking the lead or Brown maintaining his months-long advantage. All are within the margin for error, so the race is essentially tied. That could change starting tonight.

If you’re live-tweeting (as I’ll be) or just following along on Twitter, search for #wbzdebate. The action begins at 7 p.m.

Photo (cc) by John Atherton via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Three from the Sunday Globe

Three quick observations:

• Last year I gave a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award to Max Kennedy for refusing to release Robert Kennedy’s papers. Bryan Bender, who did the original reporting on this story, is back, and finds that nothing has changed. What are the Kennedys trying to hide?

• The Springfield Republican has had to muzzle its editorial page as the paper’s owner ponders the possibility of selling the property to build a casino, according to Mark Arsenault. It probably won’t matter much — the Republican was pro-casino even before the possibility of cashing in came along. Still, this is an interesting conflict of interest to say the least.

• Sally Jacobs writes a long feature on U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s troubled childhood — and finds that his aunt bitterly disputes his account of how she treated him. I hope Brown today is reflecting on the propriety of questioning people’s recollections of their backgrounds. Life is complicated.

Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Globe versus Herald: Elizabeth Warren edition

Politico posted a feature late Sunday afternoon on the state of the rivalry between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald over Elizabeth Warren’s questionable Cherokee roots. I’m quoted near the end.

And is it just me, or have things between the two papers been heating up since the Globe began printing and distributing the Herald earlier this year?

The humiliation of Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written almost exactly what I was thinking regarding U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her exaggerated (and possibly non-existent) Cherokee heritage. So I recommend you read it. I have just a few additional thoughts.

I have to admit this is one of those stories that got by me. I didn’t think it would amount to much after the Boston Herald’s Hillary Chabot broke the story on April 27. Even though Harvard Law School had touted her as a diversity hire, there was no evidence (and there still isn’t) that she had ever sought to claim minority status for career advancement. And when the Boston Globe reported that she was, in fact, 1/32 Cherokee, that seemed to be the end of it. After all, the current tribal chief is only 1/32 Cherokee.

But things got a lot worse for Warren last week, when the Globe published a correction stating that there was no real evidence of Warren’s Cherokee background. Apparently this is nothing more than one of those family legends that may or may not have some basis in fact.

Like Douthat, and like millions of other Americans, I grew up thinking I might have some Native American heritage. My mother’s family was named Shaw; we had a cottage in Onset when I was growing up with a sign out front that said “Shawnee,” a tribute to that supposed heritage. My mother didn’t think there was anything to it, but who knows? As far as I know, no one in my family has traced our ancestral roots. We do go back to the early days of Plymouth Colony, so anything is possible.

I’ve heard it said that Warren should have been able to put all this behind her rather easily, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At root, I think she harbored a romantic vision of herself, which is why she listed herself as a Native American in law directories and contributed recipes to a cookbook by Native Americans. I suspect she’s deeply embarrassed that her fantasies have been exposed and mocked.

Can Warren overcome this politically? We’ll see. I’ve thought from the beginning that Warren’s Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, was a tough candidate with first-rate political instincts. As I recently wrote in the Huffington Post, I thought the only reason that Warren had a chance was the large Democratic turnout that could be expected given that she’ll be on the same ballot as President Obama. Otherwise, Brown would be a shoo-in.

Let’s just say that the events of the past few weeks won’t help Warren.

U.S. Treasury Department photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Scott Brown’s flexible New Year’s resolution

Click on image for Boston Herald story and video

Argh. I see Politico beat me to it. But I do want to take note of a rather remarkable statement that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown made Friday on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) — that he had not touched alcohol since Jan. 1, and wouldn’t until the polls close on Election Day. According to the Associated Press, “Brown called the decision ‘one of those New Year’s things’ that he did ‘on a stupid bet.'”

Well, as Politico puts it, “It depends on what the definition of ‘drinking’ is for Brown.” Because just a week earlier, he allowed Boston Herald reporter Hillary Chabot to accompany him on a day of campaigning. And one of his stops was the Blue Hills Brewery in Canton. “He likes the Red IPA, by the way,” Chabot says in the John Wilcox video that accompanies her story.

In the video, Brown can be seen sampling the brewery’s wares, but if he took more than a sip, the camera didn’t capture it. Chabot’s story resulted in a brief flurry on Twitter among those who thought Brown was setting a bad example by drinking and driving (his truck, of course).

That criticism struck me as overwrought, and it still does. Chabot wrote only that Brown “tasted one of the lighter brews,” although she quoted him as saying of the Red IPA: “You can pound those pretty good.” Sounds like he may need a designated driver in the wee hours of Nov. 7.

But I guess he needs to revise his New Year’s resolution to “No Drinking until Election Day Except with Hillary Chabot.”

Don’t sell Scott Brown short

Scott Brown

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

Will Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts win re-election this November? Or will he be defeated by his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren? The answer, clearly, is “yes.”

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while. Frank Phillips’ story in today’s Boston Globe on Democrats who are panicking over the latest polls seems like as good a hook as any, so here we go.

From the moment Warren announced her candidacy, I’ve been struck by the fever-pitch feel that has permeated the race. Not among ordinary voters, of course; they won’t tune in until after Labor Day. But political junkies are fully engaged, as you know if you dip into the Twitter streams at #masen and #mapoli.

It seems to me that we’ve got a race between two very good candidates. I think Warren is the best the Democrats could have hoped for — not just better than the unknowns and wannabes who were running before she got into the race, but better than any member of the state’s Democratic establishment, with the possible exception of Gov. Deval Patrick.

Warren is articulate, she’s an economic populist, she combines insider experience with outsider credentials (how many people have managed to piss off both Republicans and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner?) and she’s almost as pretty as Brown.

Elizabeth Warren

Nor has she made any major missteps to this point. Brown supporters have tried to make hay of her endorsement of the Occupy movement, but that’s not going to play. The repeated references to her as “Professor” Warren are kind of pathetic. Anti-intellectualism does not have the sort of appeal in Massachusetts that it does in, say, Texas.

But some Democrats seem surprised, at the very least, that Brown didn’t topple like a rotten tree at the first sign that he’d have a serious opponent. Those sentiments vastly underestimate Brown’s strengths. In fact, I can think of two only first-class political talents to emerge in Massachusetts in the post-Michael Dukakis era: Patrick and Brown. (If Mitt Romney didn’t have a zillion dollars, I’m not sure he could win a seat on the Belmont Board of Selectmen.)

Democrats ignore the reality that no one is really angry at Brown other than liberal activists. He was elected just a little more than two years ago, and the glow from his startling victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley has not fully faded. Massachusetts voters have traditionally liked having a Republican in a statewide position, and with the governor’s office now in Democratic hands, Brown has that working for him as well. My sense is that a lot of voters are still rather pleased with themselves for their role in Brown’s win, and it’s going to take more than Warren’s just showing up to get them to change their minds.

Nor should anyone discount Brown’s political instincts, which are superb. Brown has been a master of not taking strong stands on divisive issues, leaving himself free to bend when it’s necessary for his survival as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. It took a while, but he eventually came around to voting for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was among the very few Republicans who voted in favor of financial regulation, although he also loses points for his role in weakening those regulations.

The outlier in Brown’s record is his staunch support for the Blunt amendment, which would undo President Obama’s compromise on birth-control coverage at colleges, hospitals and other secular employers owned by religious institutions. Although Brown’s stand doesn’t seem to have hurt him in the polls so far, I think those who argue his rising poll numbers reflect public support for Blunt are wrong. Again, people just aren’t paying attention yet.

Why did Brown do it? Who knows? Maybe he’s acting on principle. Maybe the Senate leadership believes it has let Brown stray from the reservation too often and demanded his fealty on this one. In the long run, Brown’s support for Blunt will probably hurt him at the margins, but it’s not likely to determine the outcome of the race.

So what will determine the outcome? My guess is turnout. If this weren’t a presidential-election year, Brown would probably be a shoo-in for re-election. But with Obama on the ballot, a lot of people in Massachusetts are going to come out on Election Day looking to vote a straight Democratic ticket. The likelihood that Romney will be Obama’s Republican opponent only makes matters worse for Brown. Romney is not popular here except among the state’s tiny band of Republicans.

Predictions are futile. But I would imagine that whoever wins, it’s going to be extremely close. My advice: Don’t sell Brown short. And chill out. It’s only March.

Photo of Scott Brown by Dan Kennedy. Photo of Elizabeth Warren by the U.S. Treasury Department via Wikimedia Commons.