Castrating “Dependency”

It’s beginning to look like the hottest U.S. Senate race in America this year is between Joni Ernst and her past positions and rhetoric. Can Ernst get to November 4 via shallow evocations of herself as the embodiment of sturdy Iowa folk virtues, and ride “the fundamentals” to victory? Or will her evasions and reversals on a rich menu of extremist utterances and actions finally make her the Sharron Angle of 2014?

I dunno, but the race is getting closer every day. Having already dismissed her past support for a state constitutional amendment giving zygotes the full protections of citizenship as a mere statement of her religious faith, Ernst is now blithely saying she’d support a similar federal initiative–and that, too, would be meaningless. (Brother Benen calls it a “flip-flop-flip,” but I’d say she’s coming dangerously close to admitting she’s pandering to Iowa’s powerful antichoice community while winking at the rest of us).

But there’s more. Iowa Democrats have apparently found and circulated a Radio Iowa recording of Ernst speaking at some conservative breakfast last year. Greg Sargent shared a key passage:

What we have to do a better job of is educating not only Iowans, but the American people that they can be self-sufficient. They don’t have to rely on the government to be the do-all, end-all for everything they need and desire, and that’s what we have fostered, is really a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them. It’s going to take a lot of education to get people out of that. It’s going to be very painful and we know that. So do we have the intestinal fortitude to do that?…

We’re looking at Obamacare right now. Once we start with those benefits in January, how are we going to get people off of those? It’s exponentially harder to remove people once they’ve already been on those programs…we rely on government for absolutely everything. And in the years since I was a small girl up until now into my adulthood with children of my own, we have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it. But we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything.

While Ernst is just smart enough to avoid coming right out and specifying the policies this point of view would recommend (other than repeal of Obamacare, of course), she’s expressing pretty clearly a kind of moralistic rage at people who receive government benefits (presumably not agricultural benefits, though she did oppose the most recent farm bill, allegedly because of its food stamp provisions). Her evocation of what “our churches and private organizations used to do” is not only ignorant (they do more than ever), but is a direct appeal to people who think America started going to hell with that socialistic New Deal.

Now Ernst isn’t saying anything that you haven’t been able to hear for years at John Birch Society gatherings (which is perhaps where she learned to talk about the JBS’ Agenda 21 conspiracy theory), or more recently Tea Party events. And as Jonathan Chait notes in meditating on the quotation above, treating poor health as something people ought to manage on their own is a trope that separates American conservatives from their counterparts almost everywhere else (American exceptionalism indeed!).

Ernst, of course, doesn’t want to talk about any of that. Her famous hog-castration ads, which her supporters are still chuckling over, give the impression that she’ll go to Washington and just attack “pork”–you know, the waste, fraud and abuse nobody else has been able to identify and that doesn’t benefit actual people. But it’s clearer every day what she actually thinks. And castrating “dependency” will be “very painful” indeed, but not for the angrily self-righteous people Joni Ernst truly seems to represent.

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.