Candidates with great expectations talk of hard times
AMERICA:A former abuse victim and a strident left-winger are battling it out for the senate seat in Massachusetts
THE MOST hotly contested race for the US senate this autumn is for the Massachusetts seat that was held by the late senator Ted Kennedy for almost half a century.
Both candidates tell the requisite story of hard times and triumph over adversity. Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren (63) summarised hers in a warm-up speech for Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention on September 5th.
Warren was born in Oklahoma, where, she said, “I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class. My daddy sold carpeting and ended up as a maintenance man. After he had a heart attack, my mom worked the phones at Sears so we could hang on to our house. My three brothers all served in the military.”
The incumbent, Scott Brown (53), recounted his dysfunctional childhood in Against All Odds: My Life of Hardship, Fast Breaks and Second Chances, published a year after Brown stunned Democrats by taking Kennedy’s former seat in a January 2010 special election.
Brown suffered his first beating at the hands of a stepfather at the age of six, was sexually abused by a camp counsellor at 10, and shoplifted to feed himself and his younger sister.
Warren attracted national attention in 2006, when she predicted the subprime and consumer debt crises that caused the financial meltdown in the film Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders. Her record of demanding accountability from Wall Street and corporate America have made her – forgive the cliche – a “liberal icon” associated with the Occupy movement.
“I live in LA, which is a celebrity culture,” James Scurlock, the director of Maxed Out, told the Washington Post.
“People get much more excited when you say you know Elizabeth Warren than if I knew Angelina Jolie or George Clooney. She’s like a rock star.”
Warren is about as far left as American politicians come, and she appeals to those who’ve been disappointed by Obama’s middle-of-the-road moderation. “For many years now, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered,” she said at the convention.
“The system is rigged . . . Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs – the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs – still strut around congress, no shame, demanding favours and acting like we should thank them.”
Obama appointed Warren to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But her strident rhetoric ensured Republican senators would prevent her being confirmed in the post.
Brown says he owes his salvation to an understanding juvenile court judge who set him on the right track. He portrays Warren as an elitist, dwelling on her $300,000-a-year (€231,000) salary at Harvard.
Where Warren is intellectual, Brown is physical. He’s a basketball player and triathalon competitor who was labelled the sexiest man in the US when he posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine at the age of 22.
Like Warren, Brown went to law school. She is a first-time candidate, but he served in the state assembly and senate for 12 years before taking Kennedy’s seat. At a Tea Party convention the following month, Sarah Palin praised Brown as “just a guy with a truck”.
Warren and Brown squared off for the first of four debates on Thursday night. He began by reviving a mini-scandal from last spring, alleging Warren lied about her genealogy to make herself eligible for “affirmative action”.
“Prof Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of colour and, as you can see, she’s not,” he charged.
True, Warren looks more like Joan of Arc than Pocahontas. The debate over her Native American heritage, or lack thereof, monopolised the campaign for the entire month of May. Pollsters concluded that voters didn’t care.
Her father’s parents didn’t want him to marry her mother because her mother was “part Delaware and part Cherokee”, Warren said. “The people who hired me have spoken and they’ve been clear . . . I didn’t get an advantage because of my background.”
The Warren/Brown contest could determine whether Democrats keep the senate in November. The issues they tussled over – taxation, women’s rights, global warming, the Iranian nuclear programme and abortion – are national issues.
Warren refers to the “Romney- Ryan-Brown” ticket. Brown declined an invitation to address the Republican convention, and mentioned neither his former mentor Mitt Romney nor his party in the debate.
And Brown is doubtless the only Republican candidate to use a clip of US president Barack Obama praising him in a campaign advertisement.
Brown has demonstrated Romney-like plasticity in declaring his support for abortion and professing belief in climate change. In 2010, he ran on a platform of stopping Obama; now he vaunts his bipartisan record.
Brown’s strategy says a lot about the electorate of solid blue Massachusetts, where 52 per cent declare themselves to be independents, and only 11 per cent are registered Republicans. But in a week when Romney’s chances nosedived, it also tells you which way the political wind is blowing.