Just Another Day in Iowa?

Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst (R-12)

A persistent question in our electoral politics: Were you a business owner, would you really hire the candidate who says the job cannot and should not be done?

Really. Please. Just think about it for a moment.

In politics, we call this voting for Republicans. You know, the party that wants to drown government in the bathtub, because drowning someone you’ve beaten to such frailty that they cannot defend themselves is somehow a noble idyll?

And while Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R-12) is the sort of candidate for U.S. Senate that would ordinarily embarrass constituents, we must also remember that this is Iowa we’re talking about.

We already know about the example Speaker Boehner set, arguing that Congress can wait until next year to give any time to President Obama’s ongoing military action against Daa’ish. And Joni Ernst is taking that advice in earnest, making it a campaign argument. Steve Benen, who has spent some effort trying to follow the twists and turns of the Iowa Republican’s remarkably bizarre campaign, tried to unpack the latest truckload of premium-grade fertilizer:

At a Senate debate in Iowa over the weekend, Rep. Bruce Braley (D) argued, “I think Congress should go back into session and have a broader and longer conversation about the nature of our involvement” in the Middle East.

Joni Ernst’s (R) response was amazing, even by Joni Ernst standards:

“Yes, we knew this threat was there months and months and months ago and this decision could have been made earlier this year so there’s no sense in calling Congress back now when this decision could have been made several months ago.”

The quote comes by way of a Democratic group that recorded the debate.

Benen’s exploration is generally sufficient; certes, the loudest complaints about his assessment would come from conservatives who would cheer Ernst on. But therein lies part of the question: Really?

It really is a useful question despite its blithe temperament.

My father used to say that people only cussed because they couldn’t think of anything useful to say. Curse words, in his explanation, have exactly no meaning at all. And, frankly, that is an outlook we can appreciate; some of us treat curse words as adjectives for ineffability. To wit, the Republican assertion that they should be elected to operate the government because the government inherently cannot and absolutely should not function is pretty silly. Who would hire a job applicant who said the job cannot and should not be done? The complaint about executive power, allegedly the heart of a lawsuit the Speaker keeps threatening but cannot seem to produceα is even more ridiculous. But then to turn around and refuse to organize a policy vote in the House because, well, the president should use his executive authority instead? Okay, now we’re verging on outrageous. That, sure, a war is an important idea, but, Congress can wait until next year? Outrageous? Are we there yet?

Actually, no, we’re not, and don’t make me pull over.

The problem with escalating to an adjective like “outrageous” is that one doesn’t leave much room beyond that. Perhaps it would simply be easier to say that sometime during the Bush administration, what we formerly considered outrageous so paled in comparison that, well, the new condition seemed ineffably outrageous. Except, well, we’ve already used the word “outrageous”, as such. So where to go? How about straight into that ineffability? By the time we got to GITMO, the situation was fucking outrageous.

Yes, that version is a little easier.

But as Benen explained:

msnbcIt’s the sort of comment that raises serious questions about Ernst’s basic competence as someone seeking an important federal office. If the right-wing state lawmaker had said she’s confident President Obama already has the legal authority he needs, so Congress does not need to hold a debate or a vote, there would at least be a degree of substantive consistency to the position.

But Ernst is making a very different argument. The far-right Iowan believes “there’s no sense” in having lawmakers meet their obligations under the Constitution now, because they could have met their obligations months ago and didn’t.

Can anyone explain what in the world Ernst is talking about? Since when is it sensible for a Senate candidate to argue in effect, “We should have acted before so let’s not act now”?

Yes, Steve, there is, actually, an answer. Then again, it isn’t exactly what we might call satisfactory: It doesn’t matter what Joni Ernst is talking about, because she is a Republican. Such an argument becomes sensible when the Senate candidate is a Republican.

And perhaps that sounds bitter to some conservatives, but this is also one of the results of journalistic abdication. As Jim Lehrer explained in 2006, it is not a journalist’s job to separate facts from fiction; they just tell you who said what, and the rest is for the audience to decide. Sure, it’s quite a change from the old visions of journalism as the Fourth Estate, but this is America, and such principles are bad for the private sector bottom line.

But the journalists leave this part to the bloggers, pundits, and other interested participants. So, in the end, the merits of state Sen. Ernst arguing that congressional duty is better served by dereliction of duty is left to the noise chamber, where what the Constitution enumerates as the powers of Congress is irrelevant to what party one is perceived as supporting. That is, we to the left of center can point to the Constitution all we want, but since we’re left of center we don’t count. In this fashion, Ernst can say whatever she wants and expect it to be true, because the only people left to make the point are apparently disqualified from making the point. You know, because they’re not Republican enough.

Meanwhile, what if we remind ourselves that “calling Congress back” would mean that our legislative branch would return to its regularly scheduled work? Their current vacation is, to say the least, somewhat extraordinary.β What’s that? Nothing? Okay. Whatever.

Ernst’s appeal in defense of irregular congressional vacations during times of pressing need is what it is, but it also came during a debate performance so awful that even a dedicated team player like Byron York of The Washington Examiner struggled to redeem:

Iowa state sealThe old conventional wisdom among Republicans in the Iowa Senate race is that Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat running against Republican Joni Ernst, had a serious doofus problem — he couldn’t stop putting his foot in his mouth and, despite four terms in the House of Representatives, had trouble presenting himself as a plausible contender for the United States Senate.

The new conventional wisdom, after Saturday night’s debate at St. Ambrose University here in Davenport, is that Braley is a savvy trial lawyer whose courtroom skills make him a formidable debate opponent. And indeed, Braley matched or outshone Ernst on topic after topic in tonight’s one-hour faceoff. Ernst had her moments, but there’s no doubt Braley recovered nicely after a poor performance in the pair’s first debate two weeks ago.

Ernst’s problems began with virtually the first question ....

Even still, York is an able propagandist:

Things got better for Ernst in the final 20 minutes of the debate. A veteran, she was stronger on questions of national defense and dealing with ISIS.

We might note that York had nothing to say of Braley’s answer to questions about Daa’ish; then again, Joni Ernst is a veteran, and that means her nonsense rejection of congressional duty is a strong national defense argument.

Bottom line: Does any of this actually embarrass folks from Iowa?


α To his credit, that the suit does not emerge might well reflect the Speaker’s awareness of just how stupid the whole scheme actually is.

β To recap: Between the end of their regularly-scheduled August vacation and the November midterm election, the House of Representatives will have put in eight days of work, having taken the subsequent fifty-four work days off for reasons uncertain to anyone, even Speaker Boehener, who sent them on their bonus autumn vacation.

Benen, Steve. “When Senate candidates struggle with the basics”. msnbc. 29 September 2014.

—————. “Ernst: there’s ‘no sense’ in a congressional vote on ISIS”. msnbc. 13 October 2014.

York, Byron. “Lackluster night for Joni Ernst in Iowa Senate showdown”. The Washington Examiner. 12 October 2014.

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