A Chat with Elizabeth Warren about the Red Sox

Well, not quite a chat, but a fundraiser at my colleague Ken Klee’s house. (Ken and Elizabeth are old friends, both being law professors who specialize in bankruptcy). There were about 30 people there. The obvious reactions are those that many have had: she is very dynamic and intelligent. She has thought through the campaign in a very strategic way. She will make an outstanding Senator. But I had another reaction, after I tried to trip her up on a question: she’s a damn good politician.

After lots of questions about politics and policy, I got called on. I said: “I’d like to talk about the issue that is most on the minds of Massachusetts voters. Were the Red Sox right to let Theo Epstein and Terry Francona go, and what do you think of the Globe’s s coverage of the issue?”

That seems snide, but it isn’t: Martha Coakley got tripped up on a question like this: she thought that Curt Schilling had pitched for the Yankees. I wanted to see how she’d handle it. She first said, “It’s terrible that Theo has left. The Red Sox are really going to miss him. He got us two world championships.” So she didn’t miss a beat. But notice: she didn’t criticize the Red Sox management. That’s not a fight she wants to get into. It was an excellent way to deflect the question.

Then I pushed ahead. “But what about the Globe’s coverage?” This was a tricky one, because the Globe figures to support the Democratic nominee, so she wouldn’t want to make more enemies. On the other hand, lots of people (most notably Bill Simmons, who should know) think that the Globe has essentially helped the Red Sox management hang Francona out to dry, smearing him on the way out with accusations of alcohol use.

She paused. And then she said, “well at least they are holding someone accountable.” Everyone laughed.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a good retail politician. She didn’t defend the Globe’s coverage, but she didn’t attack it, and then she stayed on message with a question that had nothing to do with her message, i.e. holding Wall Street accountable.

I recall Al Franken’s wonderful book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Franken recalls that he popped up at the Iowa straw poll in 1999 and tried to pin George W. Bush down on whether he had ever used cocaine. Bush similarly sort of evaded the question, and then laughed and then smirked, got the audience on his side — and never had to answer the question. Doing so would have forced him either to acknowledge it, which would have taken him off message and kept the issue in the news, or deny it, in which he could have been nailed for lying about it. And Bush figured out a way to do neither — on the spur of the moment. Franken concluded that Bush was a better politician than lots of people had given him credit for.

Obviously, the 2012 US Senate campaign in Massachusetts isn’t going to turn on the Red Sox. But Republicans have used cultural cues like this for years to tell voters that progressives “aren’t like you” and are elitist snobs — even as they relentlessly pursue class warfare against middle-income working Americans. As lots of people have mentioned, Massachusetts does not have a good record of electing women statewide (although the n is quite small). Scott Brown, who has done his best to satisfy Wall Street since entering the Senate, will do the same thing.

Note to Senator Brown: bring your A game. You’re going to need it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.