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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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Nia-Malika Henderson has the same trouble Ernst does with understanding clear, sequential sentences

For those who don’t know, Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for the Washington Post’s politics blog The Fix.  I am neither of fan generally of that blog (with the exception of one of its regulars, Sean Sullivan, and one or two of the several others) nor a fan specifically of Henderson—who, best as I can tell, never met a comment related to women, or to a woman, that she didn’t reflexively view as sexist if some woman or women said the comment is sexist or if the comment could be twisted as sexist.

And this morning Joni Ernst said a comment by Tom Harkin about her was sexist; ergo, Henderson thinks the comment by Harkin is sexist.

Or, more specifically, Henderson thinks that Harkin said Ernst is as attractive as Taylor Swift, so even though Harkin said nothing of kind—seriously; he said nothing of the kind—Henderson thinks Harkin said Ernst is as attractive as Taylor Swift.  Specifically, here in full is what Henderson wrote, in a post titled “Tom Harkin compares Joni Ernst to Taylor Swift, because sexism. Then he apologizes.”, which I momentarily thought, naïvely, was sarcastic:

Here’s a Fix rule for politicians. Never, ever, ever comment on someone else’s personal appearance. Nothing good can ever come of it.

Retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin just broke this rule into a million pieces. Here’s what he said about state Senator Joni Ernst, the Republican nominee running to replace him, courtesy of Buzzfeed:

“In this Senate race, I’ve been watching some of these ads. 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. I don’t care if she’s as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she’s wrong for the state of Iowa.”

If you watch the video, what Harkin said isn’t just him riffing and going off script. Nope, he has clearly given some forethought to what he said and doesn’t think it’s sexist or problematic. He likes the line. He thinks it’s cute and clever and the audience seems at least slightly amused.

Ernst, a National Guard lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, was not. In an interview with Fox News she said she was “very offended that Sen. Harkin would say that.” “I think it’s unfortunate that he and many of their party believe that you can’t be a real woman if you’re conservative and you’re female,” Ernst said, adding that there is a double standard in terms of coverage. “I believe if my name had been John Ernst attached to my resume, Sen. Harkin would not have said those things.”

She is exactly right. The relative attractiveness of “John Ernst” would not likely be a focus for Harkin.

Give Ernst credit. She came up with this zinger of a retort to Harkin.

“He compared me to Taylor Swift, so I’m gonna shake it off.” ‐ @joniernst responds to Harkin

comments at kick off of 24‐hour campaign swing

8:51 AM ‐ 3 Nov 2014

Nick Corasaniti

@NYTnickc

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Update #1: Harkin has, so far, declined to apologize.

Update #2: Harkin has now apologized.

EXCLUSIVE ‐ Just talked w/ @SenatorHarkin ‐ says he

“was wrong” to make Taylor Swift remarks re:

@joniernst ‐ “Didn’t mean to hurt anyone”

2:33 PM ‐ 3 Nov 2014

No, indeed, the relative attractiveness of “John Ernst” would not likely be a focus for Harkin.  Nor, of course, was the relative attractiveness of Joni Ernst a focus for Harkin. Harkin’s comment was that he kept hearing that Ernst’s attractiveness is a focus of some voters, as is her reputed niceness—and that neither is an appropriate focus, in Harkin’s opinion, because neither will impact how her votes in the Senate would affect her constituents’ lives.  Only her ideologically-based votes—which will be most of her votes—will affect her constituents’ lives.

If she does become a senator.

Not really a tough concept to understand.  And I don’t actually know whether Ernst herself did not understand the comment or instead just pretended not to understand it.  Harkin’s comment involved a more-than-one-step analysis—two steps, by my count—and Ernst doesn’t present herself as the most intelligent of folks, so maybe she didn’t understand the comment rather than taking a clear-but-compound statement and twisting it for attempted political gain.  But there’s no question at all that Henderson did not understand it.

Here’s a rule for political journalists. Never, ever, ever mindlessly adopt some politician’s or political operative’s take on an opponent’s statement.  Nothing good can ever come of it.

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