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?)

I can imagine three explanations for Brown's response to questions about the Blunt Amendment.

1) He was intentionally disingenuous: He voted for the amendment in order to cast himself as a defender of the faiths, especially Catholicism, and denied facts about the amendment's scope in order to preserve his image as a pro-choice, Massachusetts moderate. (As a state senator, Brown voted for a contraceptive coverage mandate that he now opposes.)

2) He didn't read the amendment before voting for it and was unfamiliar with its exact language; or 3) He didn't understand the amendment and thought the language referencing "moral convictions" didn't matter. In other words, Brown is either a dishonest politician of questionable character or a negligent or dim-witted one of questionable competence. Personally, I don't imagine that he's stupid.

Should voters who support Brown's policy agenda, assuming they can accurately discern it, care if he's a flawed character? (Isn't stonewalling all in the game?) Should Warren's political allies care if she too has less integrity than they imagined? For the sake of argument, assume the worst about both candidates. Assume that she claimed her fabled Native American heritage to gain an advantage in the Ivy League hiring process. Assume that he misrepresented his vote on the Blunt Amendment for show, in order to cast himself as a moderate, pro-choice defender of religious liberty and that he poses as a champion of working and middle class consumers while quietly advancing the interests of Wall Street and too big to fail banks.

But if Brown's posturing on religious liberty, choice, and financial reform is fair game in a race focused on character, it seems unlikely to affect his high favorability ratings or assessments of his integrity among target voters. His fumbles on the Blunt Amendment provided fodder for liberal blogs, but undecided and swing voters may have found his rhetoric about religious liberty persuasive. Even relatively simple legislation like this is relatively complicated in the context of a campaign, and readily spun.

Financial reform is particularly complex. Facts about Brown's public role in passing Dodd Frank and his private role in helping to gut it can be easily obscured in the fog of political war. He can successfully dispute the Globe story with a general denial of its accuracy and a claim that he's focused on job creation. Voters who like Brown and have already credited him with good character are likely believe him.

How do less partisan voters evaluate character? I suspect they rely on personal stories, not policy debates, regardless of what the framing of those debates -- and a candidates' forthrightness in explaining his positions -- reveal about character. In Massachusetts, the appeal of the personal over the political remains a formidable challenge for Elizabeth Warren. Facts about financial reform are a lot less engaging, a lot harder to dramatize, personalize, and mock than Warren's claim of Native American ancestry.

The morning after the front page Boston Globe story on Brown's "loosening" of banking regulations, a local NPR affiliate (WBUR) ran yet another review of the fracas over Warren's heritage and its effect on the Senate race. The report of Brown's record on financial reform wasn't even mentioned.