With one month to go, what once promised to be the most significant Senate election in the country has been trivialized by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown to the point where the most discussed issue in the campaign is Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry.
How did this happen? Time and again, the Warren campaign has ceded to Brown the terms of the decision facing voters. He’s been allowed to run unchallenged as a bipartisan, independent Republican. He’s also been given a pass on his support for Mitt Romney in a state that is going to give President Obama a 20-point victory.
Brown is still taking the campaign to Warren on a wide range of issues. He’s attacked her on immigration, saying she wants to give driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. These are state, not federal matters. He says that she’s anti-union, wrong about pulling out of Afghanistan, and he runs ads saying he’s pro-choice even though the largest pro-life group in the state has endorsed him. As he might say, the issue isn’t abortion, it’s honesty.
The Gish Gallop is a debate tactic I recently learned about at the blog Daily Kos. Named for the creationist proselytizer Duane Gish, it consists of intentionally throwing as many charges, lies, half-truths, and distortions as possible in a single comment or answer. This onslaught may contain a tiny fact here or there, which makes the Galloper sound plausible and prevents the opponent from dismissing the whole thing as crazy or false.
Regardless of whether his handlers are aware of the Gallop, Brown employs it at debates or when confronting tough questions from reporters. He unleashes a blizzard of charges, claims, statistics, and exaggerations to confuse and paralyze the questioner. It often contains data and studies which cannot be confirmed at the time the Gallop occurs.
For example, Brown repeatedly said at the last debate that he voted 50 percent of time with the Democrats, 50 percent with the GOP. Even if that were true, and it’s not, Warren should’ve pointed out that one of Brown’s first votes was to defeat the Obama health care reform law. The Boston Globe found: “On the most important, news-generating votes since he arrived in office in early 2010, Brown joined Republican leaders 76 percent of the time, according to an analysis by Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan organization.”
So how is Elizabeth Warren supposed to know that? That’s what campaign staffs are paid to do, research the opponent’s claims. It’s not like Brown’s attempt to appear bipartisan was a sneak attack; it’s the centerpiece of his candidacy. Either her staff didn’t give her the information or she chose not to use it.
In his attacks on Warren’s legal work for Travelers Insurance and LTV Steel, Brown stresses that he’s a union member. He’s in AFTRA-SAG, the actors and artists union from his modeling days. He’s not exactly a Teamster driving a beer wagon. He wasn’t much of a friend of unions when he supported a Senate filibuster to deny health care benefits to police, firefighters, and other first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11.
So far Warren has been unable to play offense, to leverage the work that made her such an attractive candidate: exposing Wall Street abuses that led to the Great Recession. Meanwhile, she has allowed Brown to run a race that seems independent of the presidential campaign, divorced from which party will control the U.S. Senate, and consumed by whether Warren has American Indian blood.
After Wednesday’s debate, there is only one more debate left before Election Day. Warren and her campaign must use this week’s debate to begin to wrest control of the terms of this campaign from Brown. And find ways to rein in the Gish Gallop.
Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.