Politicians Are in Fact Supposed to Know What's Best For Us

Scott Brown's attack against Elizabeth Warren's 'elitism' is illogical, but -- alas -- will play well on the campaign trail.

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Associated Press

Unlike Harvard, Adolph Hitler might not have cared that Elizabeth Warren's great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee; he might not have deemed her impure. The Nuremberg race laws reached only as far back as grandparents in determining crucial percentages of Jewish "blood." But yesterday's damning impurities are today's proud emblems of diversity, so Harvard Law School once listed Warren as Native American.

It's not her fault that Harvard has no shame. Warren convincingly claims that she did not invoke her distant ancestry in seeking a job at the law school and did not know that Harvard had invoked it. That she once listed herself as a minority is not surprising, considering the ubiquitous, often obligatory questions about race on so many, too many, official forms, requiring us to check off boxes that indicate our racial or ethnic heritage. But having handled the controversy clumsily, Warren is being caricatured as a faux affirmative action hire. Now, in addition to being smeared as an intellectual elitist, too smart for her own good, she's being smeared as not smart enough.

It will be difficult to persuade voters that Warren is deficient intellectually, but she may suffer long-term harm by the association with affirmative action, considered by some an elitist attack on a racially neutral meritocracy. The details of this story will fade, but perhaps not before reinforcing her alleged elitism and undermining her log-cabin story with a key voting bloc: union households that Warren has to win back after they went Republican two years ago.

Scott Brown and Warren are both wealthy members of the nation's elite, and neither was born into it. But Brown's implicit charge that Warren traded on her distant Cherokee ancestry is, in effect, a charge that she is not self-made, that she advanced by using an "elitist" racial preference. To key voters who take the affirmative action fracas seriously, she may stand as a rebuke, not a tribute, to the proverbial American dream that Republicans promise to restore.

It should go without saying (but obviously doesn't) that Warren's identification with her distant Native American ancestry and Harvard's affirmative action subterfuge have nothing to do with the central question confronting voters in November: How will she and Brown vote on issues of most concern to them? If targeted, uncommitted voters judge the candidates' respective elitism by their respective records on income inequality, consumer protection, and taxes, Warren should win by a comfortable margin.

Dream on, you might respond. Uncommitted independent voters, who tend to be less engaged and informed politically, are more likely to rely on image and personality in deciding which candidate is an elitist and which candidate is "more like us" and more likely to vote in our interests. Scott Brown seems to know that this is a race about wealth and identity. Who best projects identification with the economic concerns of uncommitted or tentatively committed voters, and with whom will these voters identify?

Brown does trumpet his record of bipartisanship, relying on a few carefully chosen votes (the bar for bipartisanship is awfully low), but mostly he's running an identity-based race, relying on his good looks, athleticism, and well-crafted Capraesque appeal. Brown is running against intellectualism. He spits out the word "professor" like an epithet. He's running against elitism, however nonsensically he defines it.

How does Brown demonstrate Warren's alleged elitism? "She's approaching things, knowing better than others how to do things," he explains. Well yes, but if he doesn't know better than the rest of us "how to do things," it would be an act of patriotism for him to step aside. Warren is "telling us ... who should be taxed, who should not be taxed," Brown charges. Yes, again, that is what senators do -- they decide who should and should not be taxed. If Brown doesn't want to make these decisions, he should remain in the Senate gym whenever there's a vote on the tax code. Indeed, he'll have to refrain from voting on any bills that would dictate what to do or "how to do things" -- which is what all bills do. What does Brown offer as an alternative to enacting legislation? He will "continue to do" what he claims always to have done "and that's find solutions." Whatever.

Brown excels in campaign mode, in an arena in which what you say matters much less than the image you convey when you're saying it. Elizabeth Warren is an alien there, an emigrant from a world that, for all its failings, still values and demands informed, reasoned argument. The Senate race is run in Brown's world, and she has little time left to assimilate. This is her first campaign, but no one will be kind.