Anticipating The Brown-Warren Debates — ‘Clash Of The Titans’ Or ‘Return Of The Bickersons’?

We now hear debate about debate. Advisers to Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren claim their candidates are eager to debate, but they have to negotiate devilish details. Naturally, both campaigns want formats, venues and sponsors that favor their candidates.

This kind of pre-debate debate is typical, of course. Strategists for both campaigns are aware of their candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and they’d be committing political malpractice if they didn’t try to arrange a debate that would be most self-serving. Debates can be pivotal, especially in a close race like this, and the format — a panel of reporters to question the candidates or just a moderator as referee; 90 seconds for rebuttal or just 30? — can make a crucial difference.

As the campaigns spar for advantage, what should we anticipate about these debates?

Expectations Game

Each side will try to drive down expectations for their candidates because they know if expectations are too high, it’s easy to disappoint. The biggest change on this score is that Warren is not viewed as positively since the controversy about her minority status at Harvard based on her claim that she is 1/32 Cherokee, according to family lore. She didn’t seem to perform well under the pressure of questions from reporters — although perhaps her staff didn’t prep her adequately.

Confidence Factor

For a candidate to excel in debate, self-confidence is essential. It’s not just a cosmetic issue, as when Richard Nixon’s perspiration marred his image in his debate with the telegenic John F. Kennedy. Confidence helps the candidate think more clearly in the bright lights, ad-lib more effectively, and smile more winningly. Warren seems to have lost some of the confidence she exhibited when she first entered the race. And her campaign handlers have apparently lost some confidence in her, too, because they’ve kept her away from media interviews where they couldn’t restrict the questions.

Gaffe Risk

Warren demonstrated the risk in being a first-time candidate. When trying to impress, first-timers often over-do it. For example, Warren claimed credit for the Occupy Wall Street movement: “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.” In a debate, one gaffe can sink a candidacy, as Gerald Ford realized after saying in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” And who can forget Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment in a debate last year when he couldn’t recall the third name of the federal agency he proposed eliminating?

Brown doesn’t seem as gaffe-prone; he usually sticks to his script rather than trying to frame issues in new, provocative ways. Remember, he’s had plenty of experience in answering political and policy questions — he was a state senator for several terms before winning the special election to the U.S. Senate.

Personality Points

People tend to like leaders who share their values, so while some say that Brown has an advantage if this is a popularity contest, that’s not necessarily true. Many people genuinely like Warren. People vote based on self-interest, ideology and idealism, not just “Who would you like to have a beer with?” (to quote the question many reporters raised in the 2000 race when comparing Al Gore and George W. Bush).

But in a debate, will Warren resist the temptation of trying to prove she is a champion debater, as she was in high school? A candidate can “win” a debate on policy points, yet lose it on personality points. Gore is a good example. Remember when he repeatedly and loudly sighed during a debate with Bush? He came across as rude and condescending, and was lampooned for it on “Saturday Night Live.” Warren knows better than to come across as a know-it-all, but don’t be surprised when Brown keeps calling her Professor Warren.

Headline Issues

A debate often turns on the issues of the day; literally, the day it occurs. If this senate debate had been held over last weekend, Brown would have had the benefit of several issues popping in his favor. The candidates would have been asked about the President saying, “The private sector is doing fine,” the investigation into leaks of national security information, Bill Clinton saying he favored extending all Bush tax cuts, and the Democrats losing the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin. We don’t know what issues will be hot on the day of the debate, but some issues are not going away  -- unemployment, the national debt, gas prices and the need for bipartisanship to end gridlock in Washington.

Bipartisan vs. Partisan

We can anticipate that the two candidates will each claim to be the authentic populist. Warren will offer her critique of Big Business, and Brown will voice doubts about Big Bureaucracy. Both will claim to favor creating jobs and saving the middle class. Perhaps the most illuminating fireworks will be exchanges on whether Brown is as bipartisan as he advertises and whether Warren would break with liberal Democratic orthodoxy on any issue.

TV Ratings

It will be interesting to see how many people watch these debates. Massachusetts voters know this race is making national news, and many realize it could decide control of the U.S. Senate, but it hasn’t been the clash of titans many hoped for.

Will debates elevate this contest, or will it just seem like a new TV reality series, “Return of The Bickersons”? Stay tuned.

This program aired on June 12, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Todd Domke Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.



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