Is Extremism Not A Character Issue?

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A perennial question in every election cycle is what this or that political contest — or for that matter, the whole national event — is “about.” Is it determined by historical patterns or “fundamentals,” as political scientists often insist? Is it a “referendum” on this or that, or a “mandate” for this or that, as ax-grinders invariably argue (with greater or lesser validity)? Is it a contest of brute force between donors and activists on the two major “teams” who are mainly seeking to “rally the troops?” Or is it a struggle for persuasion focused on a relative handful of “swing voters?”

To the extent that persuasion is a factor, there’s an important subordinate question that comes up again and again: are voters attracted to or repulsed by candidates on matters of “character” or of substantive “issues,” and what are the boundaries of acceptable debate on both?

This question has become unavoidable in the pivotal Senate race in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst has sought to make the race a contrast in personalities (or of “character”) while Democrat Bruce Braley has focused doggedly on “issues.”

Ernst’s approach is certainly understandable. She leapt into the front-runner position in her primary not because of her skill as a debater or superior positioning on issues, but aside from benefiting from being a woman in a state starved for female leadership, and also being war veteran and current National Guard officer, she managed to run an ad that cleverly converted a family background on hog farms into a pledge to “castrate” big spending. It’s not what you’d call a particularly deep pitch, but it was brilliantly timed in part because it ran right after Bruce Braley made the unforced error of the cycle when a video surfaced of him asking Texas trial lawyers for money in order to keep an “Iowa farmer” — Chuck Grassley — from chairing the Judiciary Committee. Call the ad Grassley’s Revenge, a potent appeal in a state where many thousands have for decades routinely voted for both Tom Harkin (whose seat is being filled) and Grassley, despite their sharp differences on almost everything.

So Ernst has had every reason to keep the general election focused on “personality” and “character,” particularly after Iowa Republicans created a second problem for Braley by manufacturing a “scandal” whereby the congressman supposedly threatened to sue a vacation-home neighbor whose free-range chickens were defecating on his lawn. Get it? Arrogant trial lawyer versus farmers, part two.

Braley has gamely stuck to issues, primarily by hammering Ernst for very unpopular right-wing positions on the minimum wage and Social Security. But he’s also used issues to raise his own “character” issue: the claim that this mild-mannered hog-castrating war veteran woman in the soft-focused ads is actually an extremist. And in that pursuit he’s found plenty of ammunition in Ernst’s record in the Iowa legislature and on the campaign trail, particularly early in the 2014 cycle when she was looking for wingnut traction.

Ernst is crying “unfair,” most notably in an exchange in their first debate last Sunday. Braley criticized her for sponsoring in the legislature a state constitutional amendment establishing prenatal “personhood” from the moment of fertilization, which he accurately said would outlaw now only the very earliest abortions but also IV fertility clinics and several types of contraception. This was Ernst’s response:

“The amendment that is being referenced by the congressman would not do any of the things that you stated it would do,” Ernst said. “That amendment is simply a statement that I support life.”

That’s true in a highly technical sense — perhaps using the reasoning of a trial lawyer — insofar as constitutional amendments don’t inherently create the laws they rule out or demand, but in a more basic sense, it’s just a lie, as Ernst and her campaign surely know. “Personhood” amendments are so extreme they have been routinely trounced when placed on the ballot (twice in Colorado and once in Mississippi). And if sponsoring one of them is a “statement” of anything, it’s a statement of absolute submission to Iowa’s powerful antichoice lobby, in the sense of ruling out any of those weasely “exceptions” to a total abortion (and “abortifacient”) ban.

But the impulse to let Ernst off the hook for outrageous positions is fed by media cynicism as well as candidate mendacity. Consider another Ernst primary campaign theme that some Democrats have criticized, in the eyes of the outstanding political reporter Dave Weigel:

The individual attacks on Braley, at this point, aren’t individually important. They’re important as bricks in a wall. Democrats are pursuing a similar strategy, plunking down tape after tape of Ernst, who spent a long time as the right-wing candidate in the primary, sounding like a … well, right-wing candidate. Meredith Shiner [of AP] has the latest example, a debate clip in which Ernst promised that she would oppose the threat posed by the U.N.’s Agenda 21 to suburbanites and farmers. Democrats seek to make voters see Ernst as a Sarah Palin golem; Republicans seek to make voters see Braley as an unrelatable, lawsuit-happy snob. It’s all very inspiring.

So Democrats calling attention to Ernst’s multiple passionate statements subscribing to the insane, John Birch Society-inspired conspiracy theory that the United Nations is behind land-use regulations of every kind is treated as the equivalent of Republicans howling about Braley’s “chicken suit.” The reason, I suppose, is that you can’t criticize a pol for pandering to “the base” during primaries and then “moving to the center” in general elections. It’s just what you do.

I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it. Extremism is, or should be, a “character” issue. And so, too, should be flip-flopping. Personally, I respect “personhood” advocates for taking a dangerous position based on the logical extension of strongly-held if exotic ideas about human development. I don’t respect those like Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst who try to weasel out of such positions the moment they become inconvenient.

As for Agenda 21, anyone who talks seriously about this twisted hoax should be drummed out of electoral politics for good. But just as bad is Joni Ernst’s excuse for why she’s not talking about it now:

“I don’t think that the U.N. Agenda 21 is a threat to Iowa farmers,” Ernst said in an interview in her Urbandale campaign office. “I think there are a lot of people that follow that issue in Iowa. It may be something that is very important to them, but I think Iowans are very smart and that we have a great legislature here, we have a very intelligent governor, and I think that we will protect Iowans.”

In other words, the conspiracy to ban golfing and force people out of their cars onto bike trails is real, but Iowa Republicans are so vigilant about it that the conspirators have moved elsewhere.

I don’t know what hog or chicken farmers would call it, but in any state that’s a load of bull.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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