Elizabeth Warren has developed a tendency, early in this US Senate race, of avoiding positions and policies, but instead delivering thematic mini-monologues - not unlike the ones Rachel Maddow, Ed Schulz, and Lawrence O'Donnell give in the MSNBC promos. That style was very much in evidence Tuesday evening at a Democratic candidates' forum at Stonehill College. It seemed to go over well with that friendly audience, and seems to be serving her well in winning over activists and, to a large extent, the broader electorate.
There's nothing wrong with that approach, at least to a point. Specific jobs proposals, for example, are nice campaign documents, but even a US Senator doesn't actually get to turn that into an actual law. It's arguably more important for voters to get a sense of the candidate's general attitudes, priorities, and passions, which they would bring to the work of the Senate, than any specific proposals.
Plus, her little monologues are quite good. (Certainly, in my opinion, far better than those generally awful MSNBC promos -- although I do really enjoy the one where Al Sharpton talks about blueberry pie. I'm not entirely sure what his point is, but I like listening to him talk about blueberry pie.)
But, at a certain point, Warren's evasive maneuvers start to seem a little too evasive. Specifics may be overrated, but they are called for at some point.
For example, asked what should be done to address income inequality, Warren gave a lengthy speech that started with post-Depression investment in roads and energy, moved through a nice phrasing about becoming in the last 30 years "a country of that's about [corrected] those who have already made it," included the fine-sounding proposition that "this is not a question of economics, this is a question of values," and ended on the rather underwhelming action plan that "the Senate is exactly the right place to start having a conversation about it."
With all due respect, a Senate campaign is the place to start the conversation about what to do, and you just avoided it.
In another instance, the candidates were asked to give a quick yes or no on approval of the state's recently enacted casino law. Warren said no, as I believe she has before. In the press availability afterward, she was asked to elaborate on her reasons. She would not. Surely she must have reasons; I assume she didn't just flip a coin. Her refusal to enunciate them looks purely political to me.
She got called out one time by a fellow candidate for talking around a question. Asked whether more should be done to hold accountable the Wall Street scofflaws who helped cause the financial crisis, Warren gave a fine speech that centered around her advocacy for and creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Jim King -- who had noted that part of his career included prosecuting white-collar crime -- responded that, while he hopes the CFPB enjoys great success, it has nothing to do with punishing law-breakers, which was the point of the actual question. (Other than that, and a couple of jabs from a feisty Marisa DeFrano, the candidates chose to avoid direct criticism of Warren.)
There was, however, a topic on which her avoidance was palpable, both in the forum and with the press: the Occupy movement.
There were two Occupy questions during the forum. In one, candidates were asked to give a letter grade to the movement. All except Warren did -- even separately grading the national and the Boston versions.
Warren, however, responded that she would give it an "incomplete - because they're not finished." The audience applauded the clever-sounding evasion, perhaps mistakenly thinking that Warren was expressing something positive about the movement's ongoing mission. In fact, she was just avoiding saying anything on the topic.
The candidates were also asked directly whether Occupiers should be allowed to bring in winterizing equipment. Warren went straight to her mantra that everybody needs to obey the law. The press pushed her hard on this afterward, and she kept sticking with that line; she even seemed to become annoyed that the reporters weren't taking that for an answer. She eventually added that the legality is being decided in court (hence why she doesn't know whether they are breaking the law, until the court decides).
Her answer doesn't hold up to scrutiny. For one thing, the court is deciding whether the City of Boston has the right to evict the camping protesters, not whether they should - or, to the specific point, whether the city should allow winterizing equipment.
But beyond that, Warren, as she is constantly reminding us, has been at the forefront of a long struggle to re-balance the scales between Wall Street and average people. It is reasonable to expect her to have an opinion -- and for people to look to her for an opinion -- about whether the Occupy movement is helpful or detrimental to that cause. And, what the movement could do going forward to be more or less helpful. "Everybody should obey the law" is just a cop-out.
I can certainly understand the political reasons to avoid expressing her opinions about that. But I have to say, it undermines her credibility as a truth-telling champion. As does her general avoidance of specifics.
I can chalk it up to the early stage of the campaign, for now. But that excuse is only good to a point.