Charles Fried

A Republican voter seeks answers from Brown

By Charles Fried
August 23, 2011

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SCOTT BROWN’S campaign has written asking me to contribute because Elizabeth Warren is threatening to enter the US Senate race against him. I am torn. Liz Warren is my friend and colleague at Harvard Law School, and I think her campaign for honesty in consumer matters is a necessary condition for the moral, economic, and political viability of free-market capitalism. It’s as simple as the Eight Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

But I am also a registered Republican and have been since I woke up to politics in the mid-1970s. I voted for Brown in his special election. Since the ’70s I have only once voted for a Democrat for any national office, and that was only after John McCain (on one of whose committees I had served) picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Yet the last three years have been a difficult time to be a Republican. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell candidly stated that it was his goal to make Barack Obama a one-term president. House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party freshmen have been even more fervent in this goal. But the patriotic duty of all office-holders is to make the government succeed for the American people, not to wreck it so that they might win the next election. Nothing exemplified these Republicans’ attitude more than their explicit threat to see the United States default rather than allow any rise in taxes. While the Democrats played a similar game to ruin the presidency of George H.W. Bush, they at least had the grace not to be so frank about it.

So where does Scott Brown stand in all of this? Those of my party who participated in the disgraceful maneuvers of the last two years should be turned out of office. If Alan Simpson, a retired Republican senator who helped produce an honest deficit-reduction plan, were running for anything, I would vote for him and contribute to him right up to the maximum. But is Scott Brown like Alan Simpson? Or even Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who stuck his very conservative neck out for some revenue increases in the interest of this nation?

As Brown’s reelection effort looms, voters need to know what kind of Republican he is. Had he been asked whether he would support a budget deal that matched every $10 in spending cuts with just $1 in tax increases, would he have answered no, as every candidate for the Republican presidential nomination did on national television in Iowa? At least Brown didn’t choose default over the budget deal forced on us by McConnell and Boehner. But will Brown accept the principle that there must be revenue increases - maybe some rate increases but certainly the elimination of loopholes and trimming of some deductions? Yes or no? Does he agree with Warren Buffett that it is outrageous that a billionaire financier pays taxes at a lower rate than his receptionist?

For that matter, as spending declines, what should happen to the budgets of the FDA that protects against harmful drugs; of the Securities and Exchange Commission and of Liz Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; of the Department of Interior agency that should have but didn’t protect us against the BP Gulf disaster? Would he agree that now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and gazillionaires are free to spend however much they want in political campaigns, they should at least be forced to disclose who is spending how much for what?

On the other hand, is he willing to stand up to Nancy Pelosi - who keeps me in the Republican Party - and forthrightly admit that it makes sense to raise the age for Social Security eligibility and to adjust the unrealistic annual cost-of-living increase? Medicare must be disciplined, so which specific measures would he support to do that? And what about insurance companies’ rejection of applicants because of pre-existing conditions?

Brown seems to be an honest and decent man, so I would be inclined to believe his answers. We all know the platitudes and evasions that politicians of both parties often offer in response to such questions. But they won’t do it for this Republican voter.

Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School, was US solicitor general under President Reagan and is a former justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court.