Friday, September 28, 2012

Mudslinging Massachusetts Campaign in Full Swing

With only a month and a half to go until the general election, the Massachusetts senatorial contest moved into high gear last week.

On Saturday, the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign formally opened its headquarters in Northampton. The organization extended a courtesy invitation to the Amherst Select Board, and three of us were able to attend, along with a handful of other area elected or prospective officials, including candidate for Registrar of Deeds Mary Olberding.

Amherst Select Board member Diana Stein
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and D.A. David Sullivan confer outside the new HQ
It was a modest but spirited event, featuring a host of local and state officeholders and candidates: Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, outgoing US Congressman John Olver, US Congressman Jim McGovern, State Senator Stan Rosenberg, State Representative Steve Kulik, and District Attorney Dave Sullivan.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz

Although Warren has strong support in our area, the message of the event was that this was an especially important election, and that every vote counted. Speakers underscored the reasons they thought a Warren victory was essential on the national as well as state level, and therefore pointed to the need to take the campaign beyond the reliably liberal Happy Valley to nearby towns and cities where the contest was more nearly even or actually tilted against the Democrats.

Their bottom line was that current Republican Senator Scott Brown was not to be trusted:

• First, although he likes to portray himself as an independent thinker and social moderate, his centrist credentials were slim: As several speakers pointed out, he had voted 5 times with the Democrats/for progressive causes, but on 10 times as many occasions, he had sided with the Republicans and the right. In effect, they asked, why one would settle for that when one could have the real thing, in the person of Elizabeth Warren? Or, in the pithy phrase of Representative McGovern, "Don't be such a cheap date!"

US Rep. Jim McGovern
US Rep. John Olver
• Second, they argued, there was no guarantee that one could expect even those 5 progressive votes in the future. As the speakers portrayed things, Brown, facing an election campaign, had been prudently politic in order to attract centrist or independent votes: If he won the current election, he would feel himself under no such obligation. Moreover, they argued, his seat could make all the difference in the larger contest for the Senate. Given the age of the current Supreme Court justices, they noted, the next president would likely be able to nominate several candidates, whose fate one would not care to entrust to a Republican-dominated Senate. And as if to underscore the point, they reminded the audience that the seat up for grabs again this year was the one long held by progressive Senator Edward Kennedy: "the lion of the Senate," as Steve Kulik put it.  (Whether his description of Elizabeth Warren as a potential "lioness of the Senate" will fit remains to be seen.)

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg
State Rep. Steve Kulik
In the meantime, the campaign has only intensified. Each side was convinced that it won the at times heated first televised debate. Soon after that, the temperature increased again. Supporters of Senator Brown again attacked Warren's claim of Native American ancestry, arguing that genealogical research had debunked the family tradition. Warren supporters fired back by citing Brown's (to many, ignorant and offensive) assertion in the debate (which he denied having made) that she falsely claimed to be "a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she's not." That Brown supporters were filmed at a rally making "tomahawk chops" and other vulgar or bigoted displays alluding to Warren's alleged Native American ancestry did not help. (The Cherokee Nation even stepped in.) But the Brown camp found new ammunition in the charge that Warren had illegally practiced law in the Commonwealth. Back and forth, so it continues.

Another forty days and nights of this may be hard to take.

It's already shaping up to be a dirty campaign. Given our somewhat peculiar and less than salubrious climate, we in Massachusetts joke about having a fifth season, the "mud season," between winter and spring. At this rate, we might want to think about adding one between the fall and winter, as well.

Fortunately, we on the Select Board don't have to worry about elections until next spring.

* * *

Update,  September 29

Barely had I written the above when, confirming what we all were starting to conclude, Republican ex-White House staffer and campaign advisor Matt Latimer came out yesterday with a piece in the Daily Beast, entitled, "Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren Contest in Massachusetts: Ugliest Senate Race." As the subtitle put it, "Most candidates for high office have taken a page from 'Honey Boo Boo': focusing on spectacle, weird asides, and name-calling. And the worst example is the expensive and deplorable Senate race in Massachusetts."

Noting the irony that both candidates promised to run "clean" campaigns, and pointing to the examples I mentioned above, he summarizes the problem:
Neither [candidate] is an unknown entity to the people of Massachusetts. So what is this back and forth all about? And what do these charges and countercharges possibly mean about their capacity to govern?
Indeed. And what does that say about what they think of the voters' ability to make rational, informed decisions?

Brown began calling his opponent “Professor Warren” as often as possible. This was considered a brilliant political tactic. After all, why would the people of Massachusetts ever want to be represented by someone who shows any sign of being educated? Warren, meanwhile, worked to depict Brown as a right-wing extremist while others started to question everything she ever said or did. The most recent charge is whether she practiced law without a license 17 years ago.

So with weeks to go and a narrow lead for Warren in most polls, the race has turned to the core issues that really matter in a country where millions are jobless: Whether she is a liar and he is a racist. Well, good luck on that, Massachusetts.  At least the rest of us don’t have to deal with such nonsense.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Well, the person that chooses to go into politics should get inured to a bid of mud on face. Or a lot of mud. I would quote the good soldier Schweik on what a good soldier is supposed to do upon falling in a septic tank, but you may find it too graphic...

Citizen Wald said...

Right. Candidates have to have thick skins. The question here is only whether the attacks actually help the public better to understand the issues and the choice.

As for Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk: that could not possibly offend me. I grew up with that book as part of family tradition, and my Russian colleague and I just taught it in our course on literature and politics in 20th-century Russia and Central Europe.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I used to reread it once a year, toward the yearly reservist service. It is a best guidebook to the military - any military in the world, I submit.

Citizen Wald said...

Me, too.

A typical excerpt:

Švejk looked at the whole commission with the godlike composure of an innocent child.

The senior staff doctor came up close to Švejk:
‘I’d like to know, you swine, what you’re thinking about now?’

‘Humbly report, sir, I don’t think at all.’

‘Himmeldonnerwetter’, bawled one of the members of the commission, rattling his sabre. ‘So he doesn’t think at all. Why in God’s name don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?’

‘Humbly report, sir, I don’t think because that’s forbidden to soldiers on duty. When I was in the 91st regiment some years ago our captain always used to say “A soldier mustn’t think for himself. His superiors do it for him. As soon as a soldier begins to think he’s no longer a soldier but a dirty, lousy civilian. Thinking doesn’t get you anywhere…”’

‘Shut your mug!’ the chairman of the commission interrupted Švejk in fury. ‘We know all about you already. The swine thinks he’ll be taken for a genuine idiot. You’re not an idiot at all, Švejk. You’re cunning, you’re foxy, you’re a scoundrel, you’re a hooligan, you’re a lousy bastard, do you understand…?’

‘Humbly report, sir, I understand.’

‘I’ve already told you to shut your mug. Did you hear?’

‘Humbly report, sir, I heard that I must shut my mug.’
‘Himmelherrgott, then shut it! When I’ve given you orders, you know very well that you must stop talking rot!’

‘Humbly report, sir, I know well I must stop talking rot.’

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Yep, got it: "The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law".

We used to have quite a few laughs about it in the late USSR. However, this party name and, in fact, the whole book, should be read in a Slavic language. I could compare only Russian and English translations, not the original Czech which I don't know, but the English one is still a loser...

Citizen Wald said...

Probably true, but my near-non-existent Czech won't get me there.

The newer (1970s) un-bowdlerized English one by Cecil Parrott, is actually very good (he was a UK diplomat in CZ).