Why Tom Harkin Caved

Sen. Tom Harkin said Monday that he shouldn’t have compared Joni Ernst to singer Taylor Swift and added that “in no way did I intend to offend” the Republican Senate hopeful.

“I shouldn’t have said those things, I know that. I regret anytime someone feels offended by what I have said,” the retiring Democrat said in a statement. “But I am only human and I can make mistakes sometimes in how I say something. I can assure Senator Ernst that in no way did I intend to offend her. In fact, I have complimented her on running a very good campaign.” …

“In this Senate race, I’ve been watching some of these ads,” Harkin said. “And there’s sort of this sense that, ‘Well, I hear so much about Joni Ernst. She is really attractive, and she sounds nice.’

“…Well, I got to thinking about that,” he continued. “I don’t care if she’s as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like [Minnesota Rep.] Michele Bachmann, she’s wrong for the state of Iowa.”

Ernst, who is facing off against Democrat candidate Bruce Braley for the Iowa Senate seat, invoked the lyrics to Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off” in her response to Harkin on Monday.

“He compared me to Taylor Swift, that’s okay, we’re gonna shake this off, we’re gonna drive on, we’re gonna do the right thing, we’re gonna push this next 24 hours” Ernst said in an interview.

Tom Harkin: I shouldn’t have said it, Lucy McCalmont, Politico, today

That’s right, Ms. Ernst.  You shake it off.  You drive on.  Sheep and lemmings aren’t usually used as working animals in the way that mules, donkeys and horses are.  But the political news media is changing that. They’re the winger Republican Senate candidates’ workhorses this year, and Nia-Malika Henderson and (I assume) others are serving this week as your chauffer. Driving you on to Washington.  Or hoping to.

Harkin, of course, remembers quite clearly exactly what he said.  He no more said Ernst looks like Taylor Swift than he said that Ernst is as nice as Mr. Rogers.  Which is why initially after Ernst’s Fox News statement yesterday morning, he refused to apologize.

But here’s the thing: Once some members of the press picked up Ernst’s outlandish interpretation as fact, Harkin had to choose between reiterating his point that apparently some voters stupidly are fixated on Ernst’s physical appearance and seemingly nice personality, or instead going along with the false narrative that he said Ernst looks like Taylor Swift.  Harkin undoubtedly was pressured by the Braley campaign or by DSCC head Guy Cecil to choose the latter.

That was a mistake, in my opinion.  And I’m damn sure that most voters who actually read Harkin’s comments will know exactly what Harkin was saying.  Some of them will be offended by Ernst’s manipulation and demeaning view of Iowans’ intelligence.

But what most Iowans won’t know is that yesterday, while the political media was all excited about Harkin’s statement—or, more accurately, about Ernst’s (and therefore the media’s) translation of it—Ernst indicated to a reporter that she believes that statements of fact actually are opinions; she doesn’t know the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion.  She also told the reporter that any statement, oral or in print, by a news reporter is a statement of that reporter’s opinion.  Here’s what occurred, as reported yesterday by the Washington Post’s Ben Terris and summarized by Paul Waldman on the Post’s Plum Line blog last evening:

Some reporters actually got within talking distance of Joni Ernst today, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect:

“[Obama] is just standing back and letting things happen, he is reactive rather than proactive,” she said. “With Ebola, he’s been very hands off.”

“What should he have done about Ebola?” Esquire blogger Charlie Pierce asked her. “One person in America has Ebola.”

“OK, you’re the press, you’re giving me your opinion,” Ernst said.

“It’s not an opinion, only one person in America has it,” he said.

“But he is the leader, he is the leader of our nation,” she said. “So what he can do is make sure that all of these agencies are coordinating together, to make sure he is sharing with the American people he cares about them, he cares about their safety.”

It goes on, Waldman says.  Ernst’s comments and the press’s choices about which ones they’ll focus on or even report on.

This year’s election campaign has been a perfect storm of silence of the lambs and silence of the press.

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