Scott Brown Plays Trivial Pursuit

Among Senator Scott Brown’s many superb qualities as a campaigner is his mastery of Trivial Pursuit, Politics Edition. The Brown-Warren race is becoming a minuet of minutiae.

The Brown campaign is guided by the imperative that he should be seen as a regular guy fighting for other regular guys, and Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard elitist. That is the message even when Warren isn’t the target, as when he put aside the business of the senate to attack the Whole Foods grocery chain for its policy of selling only sustainable fish. According to the Boston Globe, Brown wrote a letter of protest to Whole Foods accusing them of “political correctness” and twice identified the plight of Massachusetts fisherman as being based on “uncertain science” (which is in some sense true of most science other than math theory, and loosely translated means “science I disagree with”).

Should Senator Brown ever be accused of negative campaigning, he can point to the positive message of the half-court basketball shot he hit recently in front of a crowd of excited children. That went viral on YouTube.

Back when Warren was a distant notion  the Democratic front runner was Alan Khazei. The effort to undermine Khazei was led by Brown (and Mitt Romney) consultant Eric Fehrnstrom with his anonymous (until he mistakenly launched one under his own account) tweets under the name “Crazy Khazei.”

And finally, the issue that has dominated politics like no other since Quemoy and Matsu, Elizabeth Warren’s heritage: Cherokee or not?

To quote a sage observer (okay, it was me) in The Daily Beast yesterday, “They’ve kind of looked for these rather trivial issues, and I think they’ve hit on this one. It’s a little bit like a Mel Brooks film. You keep telling bad jokes until you find one that people really laugh at.”

But just as I considered the political utility of the Scott Brown Radio Report in appealing to our moral intuitions, I think Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion can help us understand the value of the attacks on Warren’s and Harvard’s identification of her as Native American. The idea is raised (absurd, given her qualifications) that Warren was some sort of affirmative action hire. To the conservative mind the affirmative action connection violates the principle of fairness, since Warren might have gotten something she didn’t really deserve. Even if she is seen as completely qualified, the use of a tenuous and distant demographic characteristic to get ahead would be offensive.

The fact that neither Warren nor Harvard has mounted much of a credible response is the icing on the cake for a campaign built on the “I’m like you she’s a Harvard elitist professor” story Brown is selling.

So Senator Brown is not only playing Trivial Pursuit, he’s winning at it.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a regular contributor to the online magazine CommonwealthMagazine.org. He is a former assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a lifelong resident of Massachusetts. He earned his BA at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, his JD at New England School of Law, and PhD at Boston College. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and two children.
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6 Responses to Scott Brown Plays Trivial Pursuit

  1. Jerold Duquette says:

    Nor sure he’s “winning at it.” Brown’s dilemma is that he has to make the race about candidate characteristics, but the independent voters who might be persuaded by this approach have not yet tuned in. Unfortunately for Brown, by the time they do, the issues and candidates at the top of the ticket will have washed over this Senate race like and Brown’s attacks on Warren will have lost considerable steam.

  2. Political Guy says:

    I find it to be a bit more nuanced then just getting the conservatives (who already support SB) ginned up through some kind of connection to affirmative action. Sure that is happening but what is also happening is independents and liberals who believe in affirmative action see it as an abuse of a necessary program and a watering down of the importance of diversity. In relation to the infamous Derrick Bell hug it was people like him who fought to make Harvard’s teaching (& tenured) force more diverse…yet Harvard was claiming EW as one of those minority teachers…this does not play well and as you noted their response (or non-response) is not helping the matters. Come out and say; “I made a mistake. I do not consider myself a racial minority and even further I do not have any direct personal experience of living my life as a person of color and for me to claim that I was one was wrong of me and wrong of Harvard.”

    As I have said before outside of Governor Patrick (who has obvious ties into the community of color) both AG Coakley and Former Treasurer O’Brien have had trouble relating to this community and therefore are not able to full energize them to come out and vote…EW will be helped by POTUS on top of the ticket but that does not mean people will vote for her or anyone in that race if they show up to the polls at all. This issue does not help her in this area one bit…

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:

      I should have worded things more expansively because I think the appeal of the fairness frame I mentioned goes beyond conservatives, who you rightly say are with SB in any case.

    • HesterPrynne says:

      On the issue of energizing minority voter support, Scott Brown might have more of a problem defending his early and consistent support of Voter ID laws than Elizabeth Warren is having right now.

      wp.me/p28tPp-eg (sorry I’m not better at HTML tags).

  3. Political Guy says:

    Hester…Scott Brown does not need minority votes to win…Elizabeth does…

    • HesterPrynne says:

      Yes, and assuming it’s true that Brown can win without minority voters while Warren cannot, and that the point is to energize those voters (for example, in the 2010 election in which Brown won the Senate seat, 28,818 people in Springfield voted, while in the 2008 election in which Barack Obama was elected President, 50,415 did), Brown’s Voter ID history might have the result of more votes going to Warren than might be the case otherwise.

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