Well, it turns out they learned a great deal. And as recent polls indicate, this time it may even work for them.
It's all brought back memories of three political insights out of my past.
The first contributed to what ultimately became my interest, and professional focus, on the relationship between media, politics and policy. During the early 1960s, while teaching at the University of California law school in Berkeley (Boalt Hall), I read in the Wall Street Journal of a firm that promised election to all clients. It had four conditions: (a) pay them $100,000 up front, (b) turn over total control of your campaign, (c) agree to their spending all the money on TV ads, and (d) leave the district from which you are running (thereby removing the risk of any media mishaps). The Journal's story indicated that, at that time, they were enjoying 100% success in winning elections for their clients.
I say, "at that time," because this was the early days of television, and television in political campaigning. TV-commercials-based political victories were easier when a substantial volume of well-produced TV spots supported one candidate and there were virtually none supporting the other.
The second was my association with the Broadway musical "The Selling of the President" in 1972. Based in part on the Joe McGinniss' book of the same title regarding President Nixon's 1968 campaign, the purpose of the Broadway version, at least as I saw it, was to demonstrate for the audience how they could be manipulated by TV commercials. They watched with their own eyes the evolution of a relatively unsophisticated Nebraska Senator George Mason into a viable presidential candidate. I've always felt the reason the show had its limited run of five performances was because it was too good, rather than the reverse. Standing in the back of the theater, listening to audience members' comments as they exited, I heard one woman say to her companion, "Wasn't that George Mason wonderful? Don't you wish we had candidates like that to vote for?" In other words, rather than increasing her political sophistication regarding how media consultants go about "The Selling of the President," we had actually sold her our president.
The third involves a CBS news piece by Lesley Stahl in 1984. It was designed to document the contrasts between what President Reagan said and what he did -- for example, contrasting video from his Special Olympics speech with the fact he had cut funding for children with disabilities. In Stahl's book, Reporting Live, she says, "I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out." After it ran, she got a call from Reagan aide, Dick Darman. “Way to go, kiddo. What a great piece. We loved it.” A startled Stahl asked, “Didn’t you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?” To which Darman replied, “Nobody heard what you said. . . . When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”
Joni Ernst's political advisers, media consultants, and commercials producers have learned these lessons well, and are applying them. Stay away from major issues and specific positions. Show video of an attractive, well made-up, smiling woman with emotionally compelling backdrops. Don't let her talk to reporters and editorial boards. Keep her contact with voters limited to groups of rabid supporters. And, of course, attack the opponent.
Regardless of what you may think of Joni Ernst, regardless of how concerned you may be about her past positions, however offended you are by the power of out-of-state-big-corporate-donor money, you have to admit hers has been a brilliant media campaign.
But we are still left, as voters, with the need to assess the serious consequences her election could bring. Here is an assessment by one of America's most insightful public interest advocates:
Joni Ernst claims she will bring "Iowa values" to Washington. This sounds nice in a sound bite, but how do Ernst's actual positions live up to Hawkeye State commitments? 1. Rewarding hard work Iowans don't want handouts; they believe in working for a living. That's why they believe in a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Joni Ernst has stated that she does not support a federal minimum wage, calling the idea "ridiculous," and opposing a raise in the minimum wage supported by a vast majority of Americans. 2. Honoring your elders Iowans follow the Fifth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. They believe our elders, after a lifetime of work, deserve a decent living standard. Ernst has said she wants to transition workers onto individual savings accounts and is open to privatizing Social Security, an objective eagerly desired by Wall Street bankers. 3. Practicality Iowans want politicians to have the same practical problem-solving spirit that they and their neighbors exhibit in daily life. Ernst has peddled debunked conspiracy theories and called for impeaching President Obama. 4. Education Iowans, many of whom are graduates of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, value education. Ernst wants to cut federal support for education, aiming to eliminate the national departments tasked with conducting education research, distributing grants to schools and preventing discrimination. 5.Being forthright Iowans don't like politicians talking behind their back saying one thing to them in public and another in closed rooms full of fat cats. Ernst attended a seminar hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers in August 2013 to woo donors, eventually crediting her exposure to their donor network with starting her "trajectory." She told the millionaires and billionaires present that her election campaign "started right here with all of your folks ... this wonderful network." Despite spending the day with the Koch brothers, she canceled multiple scheduled meetings with Iowa newspapers or refused to meet with them. 6. Responsibility Iowans believe people should be held responsible for how they treat others. They believe corporations should be held responsible for the harm they cause to their workers and communities. Ernst opposes the Clean Water Act, which passed 40 years ago with full bipartisan support, believing that multinational corporations should not be held accountable when they pollute water Iowans use for drinking, fishing and swimming. 7. Love thy neighbor Iowans don't want their neighbors in hard times dying because they're struggling to make ends meet. That is why they don't want their neighbors subjected to "pay or die" health care, whether it is because of the staggering prices of drugs, operations, emergency treatments or health insurance. Ernst stands opposed to the most efficient health care system: single payer, full Medicare for all, everybody in, nobody out, with free choice of doctor and hospital. She wants to have Iowa health care decisions decided by distant, profit-minded corporations. 8. Your day in court Iowans believe everybody who is wrongfully injured or defrauded should have, by constitutional right, their day in court against the perpetrators. Joni Ernst wants to reform laws to limit Iowans' access to full compensation for harm committed against them. 9. No one above the law Iowans do not believe anyone should be above the law. They want Wall Street crooks who crashed our economy and were bailed out by taxpayers to be prosecuted and put in jail. Ernst wants more money managed by the same Wall Street investment firms and banks who helped crash the economy, arguing that more student loans and more retirement savings should be transferred from public-interested, nationally-secured funds to risky, profit-interested Wall Street accounts. As Iowans head to the polls Tuesday, I hope they keep these facts in mind about how Ernst has opposed these longstanding Iowa values. _______________
Ralph Nader, founder, Center for Study of Responsive Law, Washington, D.C. Contact: http://csrl.org/contact-us/. Published in Des Moines Register, Oct. 29, 2014: column and many comments.
And see, Ed Wasserman, "Braley is a match for true Iowa values," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 24, 2014.