It's Personal: Why Scott Brown Is Skating but Elizabeth Warren Is Tripping on Character Questions

How should voters assess a candidate's integrity? Inconsistency and double-talk on policy questions would be a good place to start.


How do and how should voters evaluate a candidate's character? Often we mistakenly infer character from personality. Or, in these hyper-partisan times, we may be increasingly inclined to locate bad character in advocacy of policies we oppose, while giving the benefit of any character doubts to candidates who share our political or cultural predilections. But character is complicated and imperfectly reflected by ideology or decisions based on political expediency. Put very simply, essentially decent people sometimes help advance essentially indecent policies, and vice versa. How should we weigh a candidate's perceived character flaws against his or her political agenda and how much should character matter?

These are now central question in the Massachusetts Senate race. Scott Brown supporters insist that Elizabeth Warren's self-identification as a Native American is a window into her character. Warren supporters regard Brown's intense focus on her ancestral claims as a covert appeal to resentment of affirmative action among the union households that Warren needs to win. They condemn it as a distraction from economic issues, and they're angry at the media for questioning Warren's identity instead of Brown's record.

They can take solace from a front page story in the June 4th Boston Globe examining Brown's record on banking regulations. "Senator Brown Sought to Loosen Banking Rules" the headline announces.

"Senator Scott Brown has trumpeted his role in casting the deciding vote in favor of the 2010 Wall Street overhaul," the Globe reports, "but records show that after he voted for the (Dodd-Frank) law, he worked to shield banks and other financial institutions from some of its tough provisions. E-mails between Brown's legislative director and US Treasury Department officials show that Brown advocated for a loose interpretation of the law so that banks could more easily engage in high-risk investments."

"He's for us," Brown for Senate bumper stickers proclaim. "He's for them," this review of his record suggests.

Does this apparent inconsistency reflect on Brown's character? Put aside questions about the wisdom of loosening banking regulations. You might still ask why Brown didn't advertise his work on behalf of the banks. Why cast yourself as a supporter of the "Wall Street overhaul" while quietly working against it? Assume that Brown sincerely believes that enabling "high-risk" investments by banks will help the economy and the "ordinary people" he represents. Why doesn't he say so?

Or consider Brown's confused and misleading account of the failed Blunt Amendment, which he supported. It explicitly provided employers and insurers with the right to opt out of covering any medical care that was contrary to their religious or moral beliefs. In other words, it could have allowed an atheist who disapproved of extra-marital sex to deny coverage for sexually transmitted diseases to his un-married employees.

Brown addressed concerns about the broad scope of this amendment by denying they existed. Ignoring language allowing health care opt outs based on moral as well as religious convictions, he insisted, counter-factually, that the amendment was simply a conscience clause, restoring religious freedom to Catholics and other people of faith.

"You acknowledge that Senator Blunt's amendment that you're supporting goes far further than religious objections, no?" Jim Braude of New England Cable News asked Brown in an interview last February. "No, I don't," Brown replied. Braude pressed on, citing references in the bill to the "moral convictions" of an employer or insurer. "That's the language," he said. "I'm repeating it verbatim." Brown was undeterred: "I disagree with your interpretation," he answered nonsensically and hotly accused Elizabeth Warren, who opposed the Blunt Amendment, of trying to divide Catholic women from their faith and their church. (Divide women from their church? Isn't that the Vatican's job?)

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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