Warren or Brown: Which one is desperate?
posted at 9:16 am on September 25, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
The scene: Two U.S. Senatorial candidates sprint, neck and neck, to the end of a heated campaign. One runs an ad attacking the other’s truthiness. The other runs an ad attacking…well, not attacking. Defending her truthiness on her family’s heritage. A full 30 seconds explaining her truthiness. A defensive 30 seconds.
Who’s the desperate candidate here?
In Reasonable Land, the desperate candidate would appear to be the one who feels the need to spend valuable resources essentially saying, “I am not a crook” for 30 precious seconds of air time.
But we now live in Bizarro World, where up is down and right is left and desperation is in the eye of the liberal beholder.
Such was the case on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program when Politico’s Executive Editor Jim VandeHei came on to discuss the latest ad news in the Elizabeth Warren/Scott Brown race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.
To set up the interview, co-host Willie Geist played the two ads the candidates are running. Here they are, if you haven’t seen them (AllahPundit had them on the home page, too.)
After playing the ads (the Brown one followed by the Warren defense), Geist asked VandeHei why the issue of Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry is back. Below is my transcription of the response:
VANDEHEI: Well because Scott Brown brought it up at the very top of the last debate that they had. And I think the reason that he did bring it up is you have to pull back the lens on what’s happened in politics since the Democratic convention, the surge that you see for Barack Obama, and people feeling the country’s going in the right direction, and Democrats unifying–they’ve seen the exact same thing take place in Massachusetts, in Wisconsin, in some of these other senate candidates where the numbers have been going down for the Republican candidate. So Scott Brown, who has pretty good favorable ratings in the state but he’s running in a very Democratic state, knows that he’s down right now and he has to do something to rattle Warren, he has to do something to shake up this race. So he went after her hard on that. Clearly it must have been effective, it rattled her, she had to respond to it in her own ad. It’s kind of hard to believe this would be the make-or-break issue in the most competitive senate race we have in the country this year, but clearly he thinks it’s something that could change it.
Geist then cited polls that showed the race tight, with either candidate ahead, depending on the poll. He then asked MSNBC contributor and Massachusetts native Mike Barnicle his opinion.
BARNICLE: As Jim pointed out, the president is going to crush Governor Romney in Governor Romney’s home state. It’s going to be by 25 to 30 points. That’s an enormous hill for Scott Brown to climb. He raises a point of vulnerability with Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, the Native American claim, back and forth he’s been going on about this. The danger for Scott Brown is he has a very high favorability factor in this state. But he’s changing his personality now in the minds of a lot of voters to attack Elizabeth Warren on this, and it’s going to be interesting how it plays out. I think it’s jump ball right now.
I don’t take issue with the discussion of the tightness of the race, the blueness of the state, the advantage the Democrat has when an incumbent Democratic president is also on the ticket. That’s all legitimate fodder for a political discussion. But the majority of the exchange seemed to focus on the desperation of Republican Scott Brown for raising the issue of whether Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren knowingly claimed dubious Native American heritage to advance her career. Shouldn’t there have been equal time at least given to the fact that Warren felt the need to use time and money to rebut that claim?
Usually, candidates like to spend their ad money on messages that promote their agendas. If they do address an issue their opponent has raised, they try to do it in a way that still pushes their agenda or significantly dings their opponent. (The Romney “America Deserves Better” ad is a great example of this type of messaging—it uses the president’s attacks on Romney to plant two questions: is the president credible, and, doesn’t America deserve more than what he has to offer? The ad brilliantly turns the president’s attacks into an attack on the president.)
But when a candidate uses virtually all of her 30-second spot to say “I’m not guilty, really, I’m not, it’s my parents’ fault,” that has a very strong odor of desperation to it, regardless if the initial attack was wise, legitimate or even necessary.
Whatever the reasoning behind Scott Brown’s decision to go after Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American heritage, the result is now a big payoff—Warren used campaign money and time to defend herself, with a tepid splash at Brown at the very end that probably just amplified an image of weakness.
As to why Scott Brown would take this supposedly risky path, here’s my take: the conservative blogosphere has been afire with the Elizabeth Warren Native American story since it first broke. Did she or didn’t she use “family lore” to claim a heritage that could have given her an advantage over other job candidates? That’s a legitimate question for a candidate who’s running on the idea that she can do more for the average Massachusetts voter than that other fellow can. Average middle-class voters probably don’t look kindly on folks who elbow their way to the front of the line.
But how widespread was this story in the mainstream press? How did the Boston Globe or other Massachusetts news outlets cover it? Did they cover it much at all? It’s quite possible that it hasn’t received enough attention for Massachusetts voters to know about it much at all. Scott Brown raising it in the debate and following up with it in an ad might be the first time some voters have heard of it. If so, that’s not an act of desperation. That’s a courageous call—getting the word out on a topic the mainstream press might have ignored but that voters might find important.
Below is the Morning Joe segment mentioned above. As usual, be warned: MSNBC sometimes embeds ads at the beginning of their clips.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.