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August 21, 2014 4:59 PM Are Issue Positions Irrelevant to Character?

By Ed Kilgore

Running for major—and sometimes minor—offices in a competitive environment generally involves a combination of messages about one’s values and policy commitments on the one hand, and about one’s “character” and resume on the other. It’s interesting that in a year when Republicans are so insistent that voters are preparing to smite Democrats and Barack Obama for very specific misdeeds, there are at least two GOP candidates in close races that are shying away from their own records on specific issues.

I’ve talked a good bit here over time about Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, he of the gold-plated resume and ramrod-straight posture and finely honed intellect. He actually has two problems in a what should be an easily manageable race in his rapidly reddening state. First, Mark Pryor has his own “brand” of character and personality that’s arguably more in touch with the average persuadable Arkansan than the Harvard-and-McKenzie war volunteer. And second, Cotton has a relatively large assortment of extremist issue positions for a guy who never ran for office until 2012.

A more extreme case of let’s-don’t-talk-about-issues campaigning is presented by Joni Ernst of Iowa, whose own supporters become alarmed whenever she’s driven to talking about anything other than her farm and military backgrounds (as opposed to opponent Bruce Braley’s tenure as as a—gasp!—trial lawyer). National Journal’s Emily Schultheis goes so far as to argue that the deciding factor in the race may be whether Democrats can ever penetrate Ernst’s folky facade to talk about much of anything else:

“Their campaign knows that if the race is focused on the issue contrasts, they’re at a disadvantage,” said Braley communications director Jeff Giertz. “Ernst and her campaign have embraced some real out-there, tea party ideas in order to win the primary, and those ideas just do not resonate with middle-of-the-road Iowa voters.”
In an interview at the Iowa State Fair, Ernst said it’s “a lot of camouflage” to talk about her as extreme, and said her top issues will be “the issues that are important for Iowa voters”: namely jobs and the economy, education, and government spending.
“It really is very much a distraction because I’ve been a successful state senator. I work very well with all types of people. I don’t see where they’re coming up with the extreme,” she said. “I am a person with Iowa values, I work very hard, I connect with people, I care about people, I think that’s what our voters want to see.”

Well, if it’s up to Ernst, that is indeed all that voters will see.

What anyone contending with one of these “ignore what I’ve said or how I’ve voted; look at who I am” campaigns really needs to do is to make flip-flopping and pandering, and refusal to embrace one’s own past statements, character issues. The best way to do that is by tenaciously challenging candidates to fish or cut bait on fairly quoted statements and positions, and then draw the obvious conclusions if they bob and weave.

Personally, I’d like to hear Tom Cotton explain why a espousing a North-Korean-style practice of holding family members responsible for violation of sanctions against Iran represents good old fashioned Arkansas values. And I’ve love to see Joni Ernst explain to Iowans why her abundant record of buying into the insane John Birch Society “Agenda 21” conspiracy theory—not years ago, but in the current election cycle—isn’t “important to Iowa voters.” These biography-driven candidates shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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