You’d think Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, would be particularly aware of the political risks of saying stupid things at obscure events. Her election in 2014 was immeasurably aided by a video that surfaced of her general-election opponent, Congressman Bruce Braley, telling a bunch of Texas trial lawyers that they should help him ensure a Democratic Senate to keep an “Iowa farmer,” Chuck Grassley, from chairing the Judiciary Committee.
Now, as Ernst approaches her own reelection challenge in 2020, a video has surfaced wherein she tells a town hall meeting that Democrats and Republicans need to get together “behind closed doors” to deal with Social Security, which is universal Republican code for cutting benefits to curb spending on this and other safety-net programs to make room for tax cuts and higher defense spending. The pro-Democratic super-PAC American Bridge joyfully shared it with America:
I’m sure that Ernst will claim she didn’t mean what she said, or that the solutions she had in mind might involve giving Social Security beneficiaries more money or Starbucks gift cards. But anyone even vaguely familiar with Republican thinking on “entitlement reform” knows the drill: The GOP is terrified of intense public hostility to conservative schemes to “save” Social Security by reducing benefits (usually by privatizing them and then cutting them over time), and needs Democratic “cover” to get ’er done. But Democrats, you see, are as afraid of doing this as Republicans, which is why it needs to happen in private where those pesky seniors can’t see what’s going on.
As Iowa Starting Line pointed out, Ernst has in the past expressed interest in privatizing Social Security (the “solution” George W. Bush proposed in 2005, which was soon abandoned by Republicans alarmed by the backlash). Given her background as a wing nut in the Iowa legislature, that’s hardly surprising, as Jamelle Bouie noted in 2014:
Among other stances, Ernst has endorsed impeachment for President Obama, expressed the belief that states could nullify federal laws, and supported “personhood” anti-abortion laws that would outlaw most forms of contraception. In addition, she’s slammed Medicaid recipients for not taking “personal responsibility for their health”—even though recipients have to apply for coverage—and talked extensively about “Agenda 21,” a decades-old U.N. recommendation for environmental sustainability that forms the basis for conspiracy-mongering on the far right. “The United Nations has imposed this upon us, and as a U.S. senator, I would say, ‘No more. No more Agenda 21,’ ” she said during a January forum for GOP Senate candidates. Of all of Ernst’s positions, her most mainstream is support for private accounts in Social Security, which has intellectual respectability in the GOP, even as it’s opposed by most Americans.
But even if you are gullible enough to believe that she is looking at Social Security with anything other than bad intent, the “behind closed doors” comment is a terrible look for her. She was first elected, after all, by campaigning as a hog-castratin’, motorcycle-riding National Guard vet who operated purely on the basis of common sense and being totally in tune with The People (at the time I noted that “issues are absolute kryptonite to her campaign”). Treating Social Security as a “problem” that can only be “solved” by going “behind closed doors” has to make her campaign staff crazy. But she, of all people, deserves no slack or sympathy here. Just ask Bruce Braley.