The Senate race in Iowa between Rep. Bruce Braley and state senator Joni Ernst has, thus far, been dominated by the candidates’ personalities. Ernst in particular has been trying to make the race about her manufactured political persona – that of the pig-castrating, motorcycle-riding veteran. Braley has been trying to make it about her other persona – the far-right conspiracy theorist who wants to impeach the president. Reporters are, by and large, happy to indulge this sort of thing. Campaigns that revolve around “gaffes” and questions of character are more fun than stodgy policy debates, and so the coverage of the Iowa race has been dominated by an absurd story about whether Braley threatened to sue a neighbor over some chickens.
Ernst wants the race to be about character because she doesn’t actually have a whole lot of offer when it comes to policy. That became perfectly clear on Friday, when the two candidates met for their second debate and Ernst refused to answer a very important question about healthcare reform.
Here’s the video of the debate. At around the 7:45 mark, the debate moderator reads a question from an Iowa resident who is a “new enrollee under Obamacare.” The question was straightforward: given that this guy is newly insured under the ACA, and Ernst wants to fully repeal the law, “have you given any thought to how individuals in my situation won’t lose coverage should the repeal occur?”
Basically, this guy was looking for assurance that Ernst, if she’s elected, won’t screw him over. Here’s Joni Ernst’s response, in full:
Every Iowan and every American has the right to affordable, quality healthcare. But Obamacare is not the answer to that. And Congressman Braley gave the closing argument to Obamacare. He said he read every single page of this bill. But what we have seen, even here in Iowa, is that it is an additional tax to Iowans and all Americans of $1.2 trillion. It is a jobs killer here in this state, and it’s taking our personal healthcare decisions out of our hands, and placing them in nameless, faceless bureaucrats in Washington, DC. Just this past week the insurance commissioner announced that plans through the exchange will go up an estimated 19 percent. I don’t see how this is affordable for anyone. When the president and Congressman Braley promised us that we would see an average reduction of $2,600 per family. Families are paying more and they’ve lost their coverage.
That’s it. Braley, in his response, defended the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, hammered out a deal with the Department of Health and Human Services to expand Medicaid and that over 100,000 Iowans had benefitted from access to coverage. Ernst was given a few seconds to respond, and she used them to reiterate her belief that Obamacare is the worst thing ever. She didn’t even offer the perfunctory GOP pabulum about “patient-centered care” and “market-oriented alternatives.” She just blew off the question and, more significantly, the very real concerns of a newly insured Iowa resident.
There was a time when the 2014 midterms were going to be all about Obamacare, and the Republicans were going to make Democrats own the unpopular law and ride the repeal train all the way to a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress. And yet, here we are, less than a month out from the election, and in one of the tightest Senate races in the country, the Democrat is defending the ACA while the Republican is fumbling around and dodging the fairly straightforward question of what she intends to do on healthcare policy. Digging through Ernst’s website leads one to believe that even if she had tried to answer the question, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot in the way of substance. Her proposal for “real and meaningful healthcare reform” is two sentences long.
This problem is by no means limited Ernst. Pro-repeal Republicans across the country, both those currently holding office and those aspiring to it, get either tongue-tied or discursive when someone asks “what comes after Obamacare?” The reason they don’t want to get into it is because they know that full repeal is a fantasy, but they built their candidacies on the repeal message and can’t very well abandon the message entirely.
It feels ridiculous to have to point out that Ernst blowing off a question on healthcare carries more significance than, for example, Ernst saying that Braley “poked fun at Senator Grassley for being just a farmer from Iowa without a law degree," but one of those things made it into the Des Moines Register’s write-up of the debate while the other did not. We’re in this weird space in which one Senate candidate’s refusal to say who she voted for becomes a huge gaffe and a disqualifying remark, while another Senate candidate’s refusal to say how her preferred policy options wouldn't cause massive disruptions to the physical and financial well-being of would-be constituents is barely even noticed.