Five months before voters go to the polls, political veterans from both sides of the ideological divide are bemoaning what they see as the lack of an elevated policy debate in the Massachusetts US Senate campaign, in contrast to some of the state’s great Senate contests of the past.
The major policy challenges facing the nation - education, the federal debt crisis, the challenge of an emerging China, climate change, and terrorism - have been left largely unexplored beyond press releases as Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican incumbent Scott Brown parry with each other in a closely watched race that could determine the balance of power in Washington.
Often, when one side tries to engage on an issue, the other tries to divert to a topic less flattering to the opposition. Twice recently during national interviews, when Brown was asked about Warren’s criticism of his Wall Street ties, he instead redirected the conversation to the Native American controversy that swirled around Warren for over a month this spring. “Well, with all due respect, as you know, she’s had some credibility issues lately,’’ he told a CBS Evening News interviewer.
Warren, for her part, is being criticized for not moving beyond the initial theme of her candidacy - Wall Street reforms and the strains that the economy has put on middle class families - to more fully lay out her policy positions.
Dan Payne, a veteran Democratic media strategist in major Massachusetts statewide campaigns, suggests that the race is like the 1990s television series “Seinfeld.’’
“It’s about nothing,’’ he said. “Warren wants to talk about her father’s janitorial job, and Brown is all about if he can make a half-court shot. Let’s get serious.’’
By this month in 1996, the last time there was a nationally watched Senate race in Massachusetts, John F. Kerry and William F. Weld had laid out their differences to voters in two debates - the first in a series that were some of the best Massachusetts had ever seen. With strong articulate arguments, laced with humor and sharp verbal agility, they spent the campaign arguing over gun control, taxes, children’s health care, the death penalty, welfare reform, strategies to help urban cities, and the funding of Medicare and Medicaid.
By contrast, Brown and Warren’s public dialogue more often seems rooted in competing opposition research playbooks compiled on the rival’s background. Both have accepted invitations to four debates but only two in common, with Brown’s campaign refusing to negotiate directly with Warren’s on the lineup.
“This is more like Louisiana, not Massachusetts,’’ said Richard Parker, an economics professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Both candidates take strong exception to the descriptions. Warren says she talks most every day about a range of issues facing the nation - at gatherings of supporters, appearances before chambers of commerce, and with voters on the campaign trail.
“I got into this race to talk about the issues,’’ she said. “The economic issues pulled me in, but I am here to talk about all the issues. Scott Brown won’t have the conversation. He won’t even talk about debates. I don’t know how to make that happen. . . . It takes two to dialogue.’’
Warren said that the news media have not forced that dialogue. She then pointed to Brown’s votes on job bills, oil tax subsidies, and student loans.
“I haven’t seen anyone hectoring Scott Brown to explain his votes,’’ she said.
Brown’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett, said the senator “talks about issues each and every day, and as a US Senator he casts votes and explains his positions as a matter of routine.’’ He also noted that Brown, who declined to be interviewed, has agreed to four debates.
“In the end, voters will have a stark choice between Scott Brown, an independent thinker who is fighting for more jobs, low taxes, and less debt, and Elizabeth Warren, a liberal extremist whose out-of-the-mainstream views will hurt our economy.’’
Despite complaints about lack of substance, there are still times the campaign dialogue sizzles and even addresses some important issues. Brown and GOP allies have driven hard at Warren’s claim to have Native American heritage, saying she has no evidence to back it up. The Warren campaign and Democrats have accused Brown of taking huge donations from Wall Street while working to protect the interests of the financial sector on Capitol Hill. She has sharply criticized him over his vote on legislation to lower student loan interest rates. He has attacked her as a “an extremely liberal tax raiser.’’
And it’s not as if they have avoided positions on some controversial issues. The Warren campaign has produced a raft of press releases on policies, some sharply criticizing the GOP senator. They are primarily focused on Wall Street reform and middle-class economics, but Warren’s website outlines her stands on a broad range of policy matters facing the nation and the state.
Brown, although far less specific, also describes his positions on a number of issues on his website and in news releases. In addition, as the incumbent he has had to defend himself over his votes in the Senate over the last few months, such as tuition loans, repeal of tax breaks for oil firms, and women’s access to contraception. He has also used a series of radio ads to explain his position on some of those policies, highlighting his work to help the state fishing industry, to restrict insider trading for members of congress issues, and to allow women in combat.
But other radio ads have played heavily on what polls show is his “likability’’ advantage over Warren, often laced with nostalgic comments on Boston sports. He can also often be heard calling into popular radio talk shows, where the hosts generally treat him with deference.
His television advertising has also been less policy-oriented. His first was aimed at promoting an image of an independent Republican willing to work with Democrats. Just this week his campaign launched two new ads,portraying him as a supporting husband to his wife’s career and his involvement in raising their two girls.
Warren, too, focused much of her early advertising on her biography, including her family’s economic woes and the blue-collar jobs her father took on to keep the family afloat. More recently, she has launched an ad on the topic that dominates much of her rhetoric: her fight for the middle class and against Wall Street.
Beyond the advertising, much of their public back-and-forth has been drowned out by small-bore arguments: Brown has lampooned her Harvard connections to claim she is an elitist; Warren has swiped at him for taking advantage of the national health care law despite his vow to repeal it. Warren has chided him for embracing Fenway Park and its 100th year anniversary - after having tried to move it out of town a decade ago. Brown goes after her for getting an interest-free loan from Harvard University.
They both squabble over who is wealthier and try to undercut each other’s claims of hardscrabble middle-class roots. The polls show that voters are not dramatically moved by Brown’s attacks on Warren’s heritage claims nor her charges of his close ties to Wall Street.
“We’ve seen this train wreck before,’’ Parker said, pointing to increasing attempts by political operatives to focus on emotionally charged issues that have little connection to important policy issues.
One political veteran with a long view of Massachusetts politics, John Sears, an elder statesman of the state Republican Party, said he is distressed with the tenor of the campaign. He looks back with some nostalgia to the revered Republican figures of the 20th century who dominated the state’s political landscape and wonders what they would think.
“The giants that tried to teach me years ago - names like Saltonstall, Lodge, Volpe, Herter - would be very sad about the dialogue of today,’’ said Sears, a former Boston City Councilor, Suffolk County sheriff, and the 1982 GOP nominee for governor. “I hope they will get away from the venality and vitriol of this campaign.’’
Payne lays part of the blame on the media. But he says the candidates are the ones who have to elevate the discourse.
“It’s up to campaigns to change the subject and get the debate on to important issues,’’ he said.