BOSTON — U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren tussled in a feisty first Senate debate last night, with Brown insisting that Warren was “obsessed” with raising taxes, while Warren painted the incumbent as a politician interested in protecting the wealthy over working families.
The debate, televised live on WBZ-TV and hosted by political analyst Jon Keller, was the first of four head-to-head matchups between the candidates.
It turned into a free-wheeling affair with both Brown and Warren given great leeway to parry back and forth.
It was also Warren’s first high-stakes political debate and a chance, she would say after the debate, to introduce herself to the voters of Massachusetts who may be more familiar with her popular opponent.
With four of five polls this week showing her leading the race by a narrow margin, Warren came prepared to try to use Brown’s voting record against him. Brown, meanwhile, appeared intent on talking up his bipartisan streak, speaking directly to the camera on several occasions to make the point that he will never vote to raise taxes.
While the two candidates sparred over taxes, abortion, energy policy and Iran, it was Brown who immediately set the tone for the night, wasting little time before questioning his opponent’s character and her claimed Native American heritage.
“I think what you’re referring to is the fact is that she claimed she was Native American, a person of color . . . And as you can see clearly she is not,” Brown said, when asked whether Warren’s character was an issue in the race. Brown said Warren could put the issue to rest by releasing her personnel records at Harvard to prove she didn’t benefit from claiming minority status.
On the question of character and truthfulness, Brown said, “I believe and others believe she has failed that test.”
Warren did not get rattled by the early attack, suggesting she had planned to say that she believed Brown was a “nice guy” and had hoped to debate issues rather than family. Still, Warren said she never used her heritage to get into college or law school, and said Harvard officials have been clear they did not know about ancestry until after she was hired. Suggesting that she never questioned the stories told to her as child about her family’s background, Warren rebutted, “The question has been asked and answered. I think the senator just doesn’t like the answer.”
The debate shifted to taxes where Warren tried repeatedly to highlight Brown’s voting record in Congress and to use those votes against him. Warren accused Brown of voting against three jobs bills offered by President Barack Obama and Democrats, costing Massachusetts teachers, firefighters and construction workers badly needed jobs.
“I believe billionaires should pay taxes at least at the same rate their secretaries do. Sen. Brown voted against that,” Warren said, referring to the so-called “Buffet Rule.” She added that Brown opposed extending middle class tax cuts without also protecting tax breaks for the highest 2 percent of earners.
“Her criticism of me is that I’m not going to raise taxes, and that’s an accurate criticism,” Brown responded.
Brown said the three bills Warren was referring to would have raised “your” taxes by $450 billion and taken money out of small businesses. He said, “The only parts of the president’s jobs bill that passed were mine,” and accused Warren of putting forward proposals that would cut 700,000 jobs nationwide. “And I’m not going to stand for that,” Brown said.
While Warren addressed reporters after the debate, Brown did not.
Brown’s campaign manager Jim Barnett fielded questions instead, calling Brown a “bipartisan bridge builder” and not a “rock thrower.” Warren advisor Doug Rubin suggested Brown’s decision to leave without speaking to reporters reflected his unhappiness with his performance, though Barnett said the senator just had a “long day” and Brown said he was going to eat as he exited the building with his wife Gail Huff.
With the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming in January and automatically triggered cuts in defense spending and social programs scheduled to take effect without Congressional action, Brown called for taking “a step back from sequestration” and looking at reforming the tax code and military spending.
Warren said cuts in defense spending, reduced agricultural and oil subsidies and an end to the war in Afghanistan would help address the deficit, but said, “We also need to ask others to pay their fair share.”
Brown used that remark to directly go after Warren, suggesting that she and her husband, who earn over $500,000 a year, had the opportunity to “check the box” on the state income taxes to pay more, but did not do so. He later called salaries such as Warren’s, who earns roughly $300,000 a year to teach one course at Harvard, a private school, part of the problem for higher education costs.
Brown also said that to change the tax code for large oil companies in the middle of a recession and the tourist season would have had negative impacts on consumers already being gouged as the gas pump. “I’m no friend to big oil. I’m a friend to the motorist. It took $40 to fill up the truck the other day,” Brown said, the first reference to his famed green GMC pickup coming about 21 minutes into the debate.
“She’s obsessed with raising taxes,” he continued.
When the debate shifted to social issues, both Brown and Warren said they would oppose any nominee to the Supreme Court who openly advocated for a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and Warren said she was “surprised” Brown voted against Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the court.
“I’m sorry I didn’t vote for your boss,” Brown quipped, saying he opposed her nomination because of her lack of courtroom experience.
But Warren suggested that women could only count on Brown’s support “some of the time.” She hammered at the senator for opposing an “equal pay for equal work bill” that Brown argued would have been a windfall for plaintiff’s attorneys and hurt small businesses.
“You should stop scaring women,” Brown retorted, harkening back to his childhood growing up in a household with an abusive step-father. “I’ve been fighting for women’s rights since I was 6 years old,” he said.
On energy, Brown called for an all-of-the-above approach to energy policy focusing on increased domestic oil and gas production, solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal. He criticized Warren for opposing the Keystone pipeline project.
Warren used the energy debate to pivot to an argument that her race against Brown carried national implications with control of the U.S. Senate in the balance. She said if Brown were elected, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, who has called global warming a hoax, could wind up in control of the committee overseeing the Environmental Protection Agency. Warren also used Brown’s generally complimentary words for President Obama’s handling of Iran and the war in Afghanistan to highlight the fact that Brown is supporting Mitt Romney for president, the state’s former governor who Brown did not mention once during the debate.
“You’re not running against Jim Inhofe. You’re running against me, professor,” Brown responded.
While Warren argued that control of Senate “matters in this race,” Brown called Warren the founder of the “radical Occupy movement” who inspired Obama’s “you-didn’t-build-this-on-your-own speech and would vote with Democrats 100 percent of the time.”