Brown v. Warren at UMass Lowell

The debate tonight. Massive crowd. UMass Lowell looked fabulous. Five years of Chancellor Meehan came together in a national event. It was major league. Bigger than Division 1 hockey, as much as I like hockey. The building looked super in the red-hot media spotlight. Marketing videos on the jumbotron catalogued the accomplishments and expansion. Student questioners on stage aced their moments. Outside the scene was something out of a bigtime convention. There were a thousand signs lining the roadway to the Tsongas Center. Great theater. What an achievement to get about 5,000 people to sit almost quietly for an hour of aggressive debating. After the first 20 minutes, the crowd could not contain itself and began weighing in with applause, yays, and boos. It was a political science student’s dream. If you are someone who is attuned to what makes the city and university tick, you could sense UMass Lowell making a developmental leap tonight. It was like a growth spurt. Tomorrow morning, UMass Lowell is going to be several notches higher in status. You could feel it in the electric atmosphere inside the Tsongas.

Pre-show cheer for Brown was huge, big enough to surprise a lot of people in the building, but it was answered by a louder and longer one for Warren. Hits and misses on each side. Brown defended himself aggressively, but Warren kept pressing the case that he was a reliable spear carrier for national Republican extremists. He repeated maybe four times that he has a 50-50 voting record as proof that he is not owned by Sen. Mitch McConnell. Warren should have challenged his portrayal of equivalency in the substance of the policies of the GOP. Being half right with the wrong side isn’t the preferred outcome.

I was surprised that David Gregory led with the Native American heritage question, which seems like a distraction when stacked up against Warren’s record as a public intellectual. But maybe that’s the issue: she is a public intellectual, and Brown is trying to make that a liability. He keeps calling her professor, and then uses the smart-aleck line about not being one of her students when she is trying to get a word in. One of my take-aways from the event is that Warren is going after Brown for his voting record and policy choices, while Brown is attacking Warren’s character with the Native American check-off and her work for large corporations on some environmental and healthcare issues. She doesn’t have a voting record, but she does have policy preferences and experience working on financial policies in Washington, D.C.

Warren didn’t make the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge by Brown stick by repeating it. She closed strongly with a funny line about trying to change the history of Massachusetts never electing a woman governor or US Senator, and she put herself squarely on the side of the 99 percent.  For his part, Brown also closed with some fire about being the guy who is trying to change the toxic politics in Congress. He said, “I did what you sent me there to do; I have looked at the pros and cons and voted at times with either side. I’m independent.” I have to believe that resonates in the corner stores and at the Pop Warner football games. He said, “The other Senators in my party vote 97 percent along party lines.”

Warren called him out for saying one thing in Mass. and another on the road when fundraising among the Red State faithful. Moderator David Gregory challenged him on keeping Romney at arm’s length for Massachusetts’ consumption while cozying up to the President, but Brown didn’t give an inch in saying he was proud to support the President at times.  Warren’s best moment may have been when she cited three examples of Brown opposing the President’s economic initiatives like the American Jobs Act, aimed at pumping up the economy.