How a Reporter Got Joni Ernst to Wonder Whether the President Cares About Ebola

Confident Iowa Republicans push back against an odd and heated 11th-hour exchange.


Republican Joni Ernst, running for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, speaks during a campaign stop in Muscatine, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Charlie Pierce does not pretend to be an objective, on-the-one-hand reporter. His blog for Esquire regularly features updates on what the "gobshites" in the media are up to. He's called Sarah Palin a "ignorant, two-wheeled bilewagon" and "ambulatory bag of rank resentment" who was unfairly elevated from "her rightful place on the tundra." Those last three phrases are from one article.

So you can see why Joni Ernst's cusp-of-victory campaign is blowing off the exchange Pierce had with the Iowa candidate. Today's Hawkeye state news cycle was, and probably still is, dominated by Tom Harkin's glib comparison of Ernst's appeal and Taylor Swift's stardom. Pierce's exchange with Ernst, as recapped on his blog, was even less flattering. Pierce wanted Ernst to explain what she meant when she called the president "apathetic."

"With Ebola, we see he's very hands-off. He's not leading. He's not leeeaaading," she said, drawing out that last word like a conjurer casting a spell. I suggested to her that, well, at that moment, one person in America–Dr. Craig Spencer–had Ebola. Her eyes went hard, like the wheels of a slot machine fastening on tilt.

"Well, you're the press. That's your opinion."

Say what?

"But that's not an opinion. It's a fact. Only one person in America has Ebola."

"But he's not a leeaader," Ernst said, again. "What he can do is make sure that all of those agencies are coordinating together and make sure that he is sharing that information with the American people, that he cares about their safety."

Ah, I thought. We are finally back to the conventional definition of "apathetic." This was what I'd wanted to know in the first place.

"So he doesn't care about the people with the disease?" I asked.

"I don't know that he does. He hasn't demonstrated that. I'm sorry. I'm done. Anybody else?"

After TPM's Daniel Strauss posted the exchange, it started to burn up the Internet, and Ernst's closing stretch spokesman, Alex Conant (who's on loan from Marco Rubio's office), explained that "your opinion" was not Ernst's denial of the Ebola number. It was her dismissal of an opinionated reporter. "You should be able to tell that from her tone in the audio," he said.

There's more to gather from that audio. Here, verbatim, are the questions asked by other reporters.

  •  "Today we have two more polls showing a much tighter race. What are you thinking? How are you feeling now?"
  •  "I missed what she said earlier, at the last event. But about Senator Harkin's comments–what do you think, how did that make you feel?"
  •  "Let's say everything goes according to plan on Tuesday night. Who in Washington are you most looking forward to working with?"

You may be surprised to learn that Ernst was looking forward to working with Senator Chuck Grassley, her fellow Iowa Republican.

With all due respect, those questions ran no risk of taking Ernst off message. They allowed her to respond to a gaffe, to graciously refuse to declare victory before the polls closed, and to praise her senior senator.

This is no knock on the press corps that covered the race. Final-day, final-weekend candidate interviews often resemble sideline interviews at football games–some quick questions about the win, then out, cut tape. Ernst's interview with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, for example, touched on whether Ernst's opposition to a Department of Education actually "cut any red tape" or just "moved bodies from one department to another"; whether Ernst's Obamacare-repeal stance was affected by the way "Iowa has made this work"; and whether she had wanted a "residual force" in Iraq rather than a total troop withdrawal. Iowa-watchers will recall that Ernst's first bad moment on the national stage occurred after Des Moines Register editorial writers dug in and asked her whether she believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when America invaded in 2003. Democrats who watched that expected Ernst to stumble; they say now that Bruce Braley generally bested her in debates, where she seemed to believe that cap and trade had become law.

If they now lose–and polling has them down by around 2 points–Democrats will dissect Iowa's race as an example of fluff and effluvia overcoming the issues they wanted to run on. We're talking about a race in which the Democrats tried to make hay of Ernst's belief that UN Agenda 21 was going to restrict the rights of Americas, and the AP described it as "the best [they] could come up with," and a race in which which the Chamber of Commerce put money behind this TV ad:

It's a race that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni summed up this way: "In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens." A both-sides-do-it race–that's what you get when nobody asks good, irritating questions.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE