Once again, it was about President Trump. That’s the big takeaway from the final debate between the leading U.S. Senate candidates in Massachusetts.
Incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Republican challenger Geoff Diehl clashed Tuesday night over Diehl’s support for the president and Warren’s interest in replacing him.
Warren and Diehl wasted no time in the debate, using their opening statements to launch what have become familiar lines of attack.
Here’s Diehl going after Warren for her possible plan to run for president, which he says will make her a part-time senator: “Elizabeth Warren desperately wants you to believe that her focus is on Massachusetts. But the fact is, she doesn’t care about your house. She cares about the White House.”
And here’s Warren attacking Diehl as the guy who’s promised to have Trump’s back in Washington: “He’s also embraced a tax plan that his Republican colleagues say they’re going to pay for by cutting Social Security. And Mr. Diehl says he wants to be with Donald Trump a hundred percent of the time.”
Diehl co-chaired Trump’s 2016 campaign in Massachusetts, but argues that unlike the president, he has a record of working with Democrats.
But at the WCVB-TV debate, there was no agreement between the Republican challenger and the Democratic incumbent, starting with the first question: Does Trump’s divisive rhetoric help incite violence, including the recent attempted mail bomb attacks and the shooting massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Diehl blamed “pockets of deep-seeded hatred” and didn’t mention the president, but he did criticize Warren for some of her heated rhetoric.
“For example a year ago, health care was being debated by saying that Republicans want, and this is a quote, ‘blood money’ from the American people, at a time when Congressman [Steve] Scalise had been shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter,” he said. “That’s the kind of rhetoric and dialogue that pushes people in the wrong way.”
For her part, Warren placed at least part of the blame for the breakdown of the nation’s civil discourse on Trump.
“Ultimately the responsibility for the person who commits the violence lies with the person who commits the violence,” she said. “But Donald Trump is not making things better when he does attacks on the free press, when he tries to turn people against people.”
Warren and Diehl clashed on a number of issues, including taxes, and presented two radically different views of government and how it’s working, or not working.
For Warren, it’s bad news. Republican tax cuts benefit billionaires and corporations at the expense of working people.
“We live in an America where opportunities for the middle class are shrinking, they’re growing only for those at the top, and that’s what I fight back against,” she said.
In Warren’s view, the economic glass is half empty, and because of Trump and the Republicans, it’s continuing to drain. By contrast, Diehl sees a glass half full and filling up, thanks to Republican policies, including their $1.5 trillion tax cut, which he says is helping Massachusetts.
“The fact of the matter is more people in Massachusetts are making money, they are having wage increases,” he said, “and that has translated into Beacon Hill taking in over $1.2 billion in unanticipated tax revenue because of all the people out there working. Companies have been able to reinvest.”
The two also disagreed on immigration and Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship. Trump has suggested he could end the right, of children born to foreign parents in the U.S. to become citizens, by executive order, which Diehl says he would support.
“Immigration in the United States is at a head,” he said, “and I think looking at the birthright issue and making sure chain migration is not on the table anymore is one way to go about it.”
A number of legal experts say that would run afoul of the Constitution, a point Warren used to chide Diehl.
“Saying that he will have Donald Trump’s back when Donald Trump tries to erase part of the Constitution of the United States,” she said, “that just shows how far Geoff Diehl will go to back up Donald Trump.”
As the debate moved toward the end, it returned to where it started: about whether Warren will run for president. When asked if she’d serve her full term if re-elected on Tuesday, Warren said, “I’ve already said that I will take a look at running for president after the election, but I guarantee this: No matter what I do, I will work for the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
In response, Diehl said: “Ironically, my opponent and President Trump do have something in common: Neither wants to be senator for Massachusetts, but both want to be president.”
It was one of the few lighthearted moments in the debate.
But Diehl remains the underdog in this race with a steep hill to climb. A new Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll shows him trailing Warren by more than 20 points.
But that same poll shows little support among Massachusetts voters for a possible Warren White House run in 2020. When asked if she should run, an overwhelming majority — 68 percent — said no.