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Political Mercury

Sarah Palin, Joni Ernst’s political jukebox hero


State Sen. Joni Ernst campaigns in Carroll this June with Congressman Steve King.

State Sen. Joni Ernst campaigns in Carroll this June with Congressman Steve King.

Political question of the day for Iowans: What’s worse, being Sarah Palin, or wanting to be like Sarah Palin?

Many opponents of Joni Ernst, the Red Oak Republican seeking a Hawkeye State U.S. Senate seat, make the easy reach in comparing Ernst with another conservative female political figure, Sarah Palin, the Fox News version of a Kardashian.

The fact that Palin endorses Ernst turns what is natural into something that is fair as well.

So what does Ernst think of this morphing, the Wasilla-ing of the Red Oakian? Is Ernst happy with people seeing a budding Palin in her upstart campaign?

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“Well, I am flattered because she is a strong leader,” Ernst told The New York Times. “I am a strong independent leader. I am a strong female independent leader. And I do believe they use that as a distraction. Rather than focus on me, they’re focusing on someone else. She is the kind of politician I admire because she speaks what’s on her mind.”

There are so many ways to parse this.

For starters, the answer reveals that Ernst sees herself in a national ideological context, as a cultural warrior who won’t be constrained by borders. She’ll jump the Mississippi, hop the Missouri, if the microphone is on, and there’s a chance to even tangentially tag President Obama with some hyperbolic attack related to impeachment or being a Kenyan interloper. Rush, you there? That you, Glenn? Please, oh please, don’t cut to commercial.

All’s well and good with the Palin connection where Ernst is from — Montgomery County, right in the heart of Steve King Country. Seen in the light of a bid for the 4th Congressional seat, attaching oneself to Palin is church-on-Sunday smart.

Sarah Palin campaigns in Sioux City during the 2008 presidential race.

Sarah Palin campaigns in Sioux City during the 2008 presidential race.

So Ernst is thinking like a regional candidate, a western Iowan, and at the same time, posturing as a national figure, a voice of the think tanks that want to tank corn-and-bean boosting renewable fuels and turn Social Security into a program that is, to use Ernst’s own term, more “market driven.” Read Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys” and get back to me on whether you want the senior safety net in the hands of Wall Street.

What’s missing from Ernst is an understanding of what she really should be: an Iowa candidate — like Senators Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley.

What’s astounding to me is that Ernst didn’t reject the Palin comparison.

“Well, I guess we are both women, and we are both Republican, and we are mothers and grandmothers,” Ernst could have said. “But look, I’m a rural Iowan, not a TV personality. I look no further than Chuck Grassley, a man who knows the farms of the state like I do, as the inspiration for the kind of senator I plan to be for Iowa. Sarah has strong family values, and we share that. But being from Iowa is a pretty specific privilege, and quite honestly, I plan to go about my service in an Iowa way. I’ll never not take a call from Sarah Palin, but trust me, Senator Grassley will be the one I’m calling regularly for advice.”

Or she could really have flipped the script, reached out to independent women and even some rural Democrats.

“I admire a lot about many women in politics, and not all of them are Republican,” Ernst could have said. “For example, while I disagree with her on a lot of issues, I am inspired by the work of Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a military veteran. I think we could do some good work together for our veterans and create a better environment for women in the military. I’d like to learn from Tammy.”

But no, instead Ernst tells us she’s “flattered” with the comparison to Palin, whom, if you’re really being honest, sold out her own party. Palin made some famous missteps in her 2008 vice presidential campaign. But she had a platform, a voice. Instead of hunkering down and completing a term as governor of Alaska, honing her worldview, and preparing for future elective opportunities, she cashed in on the fame.

Bottom line: Sarah Palin is 100 percent celebrity, zero percent statesman.

An “independent voice” and “strong leader” are laughable descriptions of Palin from Ernst.

Palin is a half-term governor who never breaks ranks with the Right’s talking points. She’s not an ideas person like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Newt Gingrich or Paul Ryan, and that would be resoundingly reflected in Iowa by Republicans themselves if Palin were to enter the 2016 presidential race. Palin wouldn’t be able to summon enough momentum in Iowa to make a go of it in New Hampshire.

From all strategic angles, it makes no sense for Joni Ernst to tie herself to the dimming star that is Sarah Palin.

So there’s really only one explanation for Joni Ernst’s unequivocal — even dreamy-eyed — embrace of Sarah Palin. Ernst is truly speaking her mind. She wants to be like Palin. Iowans, if they elect Ernst, can’t say they weren’t warned. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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