Where We’re Going, We Need Roads

In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren glad-hands while Scott Brown grunts.

Brown posing after a charity basketball game in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Brown posing after a charity basketball game in Springfield, Mass.

Photo by David Weigel.

QUINCY, Mass.—Elizabeth Warren is in the right place, next to the hole in the highway. She exits an SUV and chats excitedly, one by one, with the construction workers and ironworkers who’d been waiting there for the photo op. It’s Aug. 14, and the foreman explains what’s being dug: a new road underneath the highway, one that will unchoke the traffic that flows down I-93 from Boston, a project monitored from the foreman’s trailer.

“How do you get any work done?” says Warren. “I’d just want to watch this all day!”

Warren tells the workers that she’d been watching the highway project since she “saw the model laid out” in a Quincy municipal building. “Quite frankly,” says Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, “none of the project would be possible without the help of the stimulus.”

A dozen reporters stand, digital recorders extended, to capture a conversation about public-private spending that has the rhythm, wordiness, and can-you-believe-this giddiness of the late-night infomercial for juice machines that comes on after you pass out during Real Housewives of Atlanta. Warren is thrilled, just thrilled. “The program I’ve put together,” she tells Koch, “is more effective in reducing the deficit than Scott Brown’s program of not focusing on investments and infrastructure. It’s really about priorities.”

For a few months—they seemed like years—the race for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts was completely disconnected from the economy. In April, the conservative Boston Herald scooped that Harvard University, where Warren taught law, once listed her as a “minority” faculty member. Reporters became amateur genealogists, seeking out records that could validate Warren’s claim to be a 1/32nd member of the Cherokee Nation. The Herald’s headline department cranked out classics like “Arrows May Fell Warren in Fall” and “ ‘Pow Wow’ Factor.” Republicans wanted the swing voter to see Warren as an entitled, elitist carpetbagger. This story should’ve done it.

But it didn’t. When the Cherokee story wound down, Warren remained tied in the polls with Brown. A Suffolk University survey found most voters believing Warren’s version of the story and even more voters unable to give a damn about it. Democrats picked Warren to give a prime-time speech at the national convention. Then came Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan. The unexpectedly silly Senate race is all of a sudden about stimulus spending and Medicare and taxes.

You could tell just by watching Scott Brown. On Aug.13, the incumbent’s only public event was a charity basketball game in Springfield for a mentoring program called A Path to Manhood. On the front of the $10 ticket: A photo of Brown spinning a basketball on his thumb as preteens gaze at his awesomeness.

On the court, it was even better for Brown. The other politicos on the charity teams swapped out frequently and struggled to get to the net. Rep. Richard Neal—a Democrat, like everyone not named Brown in the Massachusetts delegation—made an early run at the basket, threw a brick, and quickly found his way to the bench. “Basketball!” laughed the announcer when another politician stumbled over the ball. “It’s basketball!”

Brown stayed on the court for all but two minutes of the game. He was constantly in motion and got fouled four times—more than all of the other players combined. He missed one foul shot and let out a gut-deep “AAGGGNNH-AGGH!” Moments later, when he sank a three-pointer, he ran past the bleachers (and attending photographers), grinning widely and holding up three fingers.

As a photo-op, it was perfect. As a press event, it was tougher to control. Local reporters insisted on asking Brown about the Ryan choice, which put him in a spot, because he opposed Ryan’s budget when it got to the Senate. “I think the corporate tax rate needs to be cut, but I don’t know if 25 percent is the number,” Brown told reporters. “While we don’t agree [with Ryan] on everything, I certainly appreciate his efforts to bring budgetary issues to the forefront.”

Brown’s just-a-regular-dude appeal is one of his biggest assets. It sets off audible rage alarms whenever you mention it to a Democrat. On Tuesday, when Warren is asked whether Brown’s ultra-physical events put her at a disadvantage, she theorizes that for Brown, “the point is to be out and visible in a way where he doesn’t have to talk about the issues or take any questions.”State Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh, in an interview at his office, made sneering references to Brown’s image, accusing him of “hanging up the barn coat and putting on a nice tuxedo” when he got to Washington.

There’s a trauma behind the gripe. Democrats underestimated Brown in 2010. Attorney General Martha Coakley, groomed for higher office, sleepwalked through the election until she panicked and tried, too late, to get the state’s Democratic machines humming, after Brown had already worked the state in his photo-op friendly pickup truck.

“The truth of the matter is, we screwed that up,” Walsh said. “I take responsibility for it. We took the race for granted. I could try and justify it. Scott Brown was sort of a no-account state legislator. Been there for a dozen years, he never passed any legislation. But that’s a terrible excuse for doing something you should never do, and that’s take the race for granted.” And they lost Ted Kennedy’s seat.

Warren never gives the impression that she’s coasting. On Tuesday, before she got to Quincy, she campaigned at a bar and grill in Dorchester, giving out the kind of hugs you typically see when a mom sees her kid come off the plane after a long semester. She learned that a tot is five years old and offered her a high-five.

Waiting in the main dining room were activists who’d been backing Warren for months. “I’m probably the only person who can say I’ve had Courtney Love and Elizabeth Warren in my house,” said Joyce Linehan. (She used to work for Sub Pop records.) “I’m an Irish-American working-class woman, born in this neighborhood, and I couldn’t identify with Brown if he was the last man on earth.”

Warren’s speech in Dorchester was short, all contrast-building with the Ryan plan. “I’ll tell you,” she said, “I never thought I would run for office, but when there’s a vision like that—and it’s put forward as the serious vision of the Republican party—then it’s time for all of us to get involved in this race.”

As Warren heads to Quincy, Brown attempts to take back the advantage on taxes. His speech to the South Shore Chamber of Commerce is billed as a “major policy address” on taxes. It becomes, basically, a campaign speech accusing Warren of supporting “the largest tax increase since World War II” (a scary-sounding way to describe the plan that Barack Obama ran on in 2008), and deriding her for not voluntarily paying higher taxes. He takes no questions, but he has turned the story of the day into a “spat.” In Quincy, Warren pauses during the construction-site visit to answer a press corps that wants her rebuttal to Brown.

“He called you a job destroyer,” says one reporter.

“I’m sorry—job destroyer?” says Warren. “We were just talking about how many jobs were created by investments in infrastructure.”

“They said they tallied up all the tax increases you support,” notes another reporter, “and they say they came up with $3.4 trillion over the past decade. They have a list that they’ve been emailing out.”

Warren responds with an amused Are you kidding gasp. “This is just a made-up number,” she says.

“You say that, but they say they have this list.”

“Well, show me the list. Do we have to go through this? This is a made-up number. The interesting question is why, right now. I think Scott Brown is very worried about this race. And the reason he’s worried is that when Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, the economic issues clicked into place.”

But if the Cherokee-and-trucks stage of the campaign is over, does that mean Warren is winning it? That’s what the pre-emptive attacks on Warren’s DNC speech were about—portraying her as a spiteful enemy of business, whose YouTube’d speech about what business owners owe to government inspired the damaging Barack Obama riff on the same subject.

“Do you have any second thoughts about your famous YouTube video?” a reporter asks. “They go back to that again and again.”

“No,” says Warren. She lets the comment hang in midair.

“Why not?”

“Because I told the truth. And I’ll tell it again.”

Out of nowhere, a construction worker slips into the press scrum to introduce his friends. It feels like Warren is getting bailed out. She was surviving all those tax questions, sure, but nothing makes her point like an ironworker with a thick Quincy accent telling her that he had to work on New York’s Freedom Tower because there wasn’t enough public spending in Massachusetts.

“I was out for over a year,” says Jim Lyons.

“Out for over a year?” asks Warren. “I want to hear that again. I want to make sure everybody heard that.”