Extremism As a Character Flaw

Some of you may remember a while back when I had a rare moment of disagreement with Dave Weigel after he penned a world-weary column treating Democratic criticism of Joni Ernst’s discourses on Agenda 21 to Republican attacks on Bruce Braley for disrespecting farmers. It was all, Weigel said, part of “America’s dumbest Senate race.”

I indicated then and still strongly believe that media cyncism about conservative extremism and the need to pander to “the base” and then skip away from such pandering when it’s inconvenient has been an important enabler to the most significant political phenomenon of our lifetime, the radicalization of one of our two major parties. So after a Ernst-Braley debate in which Ernst herself appeared to embrace the idea that she should not be held accountable for crazy things she’d embraced (in this case, a “personhood” constitutional amendment) to “make a statement,” I devoted a TPM Cafe column to the proposition that both extremism and cynical flip-flopping on extremist positions are or at least should be “character issues” in political campaigns.

It may be too late in this cycle for media folk to rethink old habits like giving pols a pass for their “etch-a-sketch” moments, or for the base-pandering that makes them necessary. But it matters, as media coverage of the Iowa debate indicated. Braley was generally deemed as missing the opportunity to lay a glove on the serene Ernst, even though her answers to various criticisms of her extremist positioning and associations was to change the subject back to bland assertions of her bland, noncontroversial character. Encouraging this lack of accountability, and engaging in the worst form of false equivalency, are just plain sins.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.