ABOUT 20 MINUTES into Wednesday's debate between Senator Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren, moderator Jim Madigan asked the candidates for examples of federal spending they would cut if they win next month's election. Warren was ready with two ultra-safe answers: She would vote to slash agricultural subsidies and the defense budget. For a liberal Democrat running for office in deep-blue Massachusetts, where amber waves of grain are about as common as crowded military recruiters' offices, those are easy cuts to endorse.
Yet within half an hour, Warren's line had shifted. Perhaps it was hearing Brown's repeated references to his connections to the Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield and the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, or perhaps it had dawned on her that even in Massachusetts some voters serve in uniform, but suddenly defense cuts weren't quite the terrific idea they had been at 7:20. Asked about support for a national base-closing commission, Warren not only declared her opposition to across-the-board reductions in defense spending, but swore to protect Massachusetts military installations from the loss of a dime.
"You said before that you're for defense cuts," Brown retorted. "You can't have it both ways."
Ah, but of course she could. Would Warren support repealing the mortgage-interest tax deduction, the moderator asked? Absolutely not, she replied. Yet on other occasions, Warren has given rather a different answer to that question. Instead of an unequivocal "No," she has argued that no deductions should be off the table — that none, not even the popular deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving, should be labeled sacrosanct.
It was a sharp, focused, fast-moving encounter. For 60 minutes Warren and Brown blazed away, and when it was over, the stage at Springfield's Symphony Hall was littered with mangled facts, outrageous accusations, and barbed talking points. As far as I could tell, the dynamics of the Senate race hadn't changed. Alas, neither had the odds that whoever wins on Nov. 6 will raise the tone of debate in Washington, DC.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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