Elizabeth Warren’s Non-Gaffe on Dick Lugar

It’s universal: Everybody says Elizabeth Warren stumbled in Monday night’s debate. I’ll just quote Kit Seelye:

Ms. Warren’s most embarrassing moment may have been when she named Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana as a Republican in Washington with whom she could work; unfortunately for her, Mr. Lugar was defeated in his primary in May and will not be returning to the Senate next year.

I was driving during the debate, and only saw this clip this morning. It’s not clear to me that Warren stumbled, only that moderator Dick Gregory treated this like a stumble. The clip (labeled a “gaffe” by the editor of the clip):

Gregory asks if there are any Republicans Warren would work with on “big issues.” Warren answers immediately: “Oh, I think probably Richard Lugar would be one that would come to mind, but let me…”

Gregory interrupts: “He’s not going to be there.” At this point, Warren is already halfway through a stage laugh.
“He’s not going to be there,” she repeats. The audience (full of partisans cheering for their team – 5000 people, all told) laughs. “So you else could you name, senator?” asks Gregory. (Note: Warren is not a senator.) “That is a problem,” says Warren, “but let me” – and Gregory re-asks the question. Warren eventually starts naming policies she’ll look to work on.

Did Warren forget that Lugar had been primaried? Possibly. This is one of those things you can’t trust a candidate to explain later, but she/he will spin it. Was Warren trying to make a point about how the ranks of Republicans We Can Work With were been cut down by conservatives? Less possible, but it would have been in line with her strategy – remind Massachusetts voters that Brown, independent as he is, would be part of a right-wing Congress. I’m only skeptical because Warren eventually used the “let me…” transition to dodge the question.

So, why challenge the GAFFE status of this moment? Because the question came out of a weird mirror universe in which partisan reality doesn’t matter. Among the reasons Lugar lost his primary (in addition to age and residence issues) were his occasional Marvel team-ups with Democrats, especially with Barack Obama on arms control. Utah’s Bob Bennett is an ex-senator, largely, because he voted for TARP and sponsored a mandate-based health care bill with Sen. Ron Wyden. This is a pretty basic fact about politics right now – parties punish incumbents who cross party lines. It made perfect sense for Indiana conservatives to boot Lugar.

This isn’t to say that “bipartisanship” is a goal unto itself. The most bipartisan bills are, generally, the pieces of crap that get passed hurriedly during crises – TARP, the PATRIOT Act, the debt deal that everyone’s now trying to undo. But the Lugar answer is more interesting and loaded than the standard gotcha/gaffe minuet. (I’d say the same thing if some North Carolina Republican bemoans how he won’t be able to work with Rep. Heath Shuler anymore. Try it!)