Presuming Extremism Right Out of Existence

Two of my favorite writers looked at the phenomenon of Senate candidates with extremist backgrounds like Corey Gardner and Joni Ernst getting kid glove media treatment and reached different conclusions.

Charlie Pierce thinks pundits are determined to protect their earlier predictions that this will be a Republican Year.

But Kevin Drum suggests there’s a theoretically neutral double standard being practiced in which policy positioning and repositioning cannot be challenged (you know, without taking sides) by political reporters, while “process gaffes”–e.g., Alison Grimes’ refusal to admit she voted for Barack Obama in 2012–are fair game. Kevin’s theory could also extend to the heavy pounding Bruce Braley’s received from political reporters as well as Republicans for the terrible (but not really substantive) mistake of disrespecting Chuck Grassley.

I have a third theory, though. When Joni Ernst or Corey Gardner repudiate or rationalize their past support for Personhood initiatives, they are abandoning something that 99% of political reporters consider objectively insane but that they had to embrace to appeal to “the base.” Like Mitt Romney in 2012, they had an “etch-a-sketch” moment when they “pivoted to the general election” and “moved to the center,” all things that are virtually sacraments to political reporters who could not for a moment imagine that Ernst or Gardner actually believed the stuff they were cynically shoveling out to the yahoos.

While this tendency to dismiss crazy things conservative candidates say before they’re on Prime Time does indeed give a major break to candidates like Ernst and Gardner (and Tillis and Perdue and many others), the more pervasive effect is to discount conservative extremism generally. Since Serious People could not possibly believe in zygote personhood or Agenda 21 or a secular socialist conspiracy to shut down churches, such beliefs are not taken seriously, unless they are advanced by pols who are unmistakably loony like Todd Akin or Christine O’Donnell. So conservative extremism is presumed right out of existence. Big mistake.

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.