I know I'm not going to get anywhere trying to offer an alternate reading of what Tom Harkin said last week about Joni Ernst, but I'm going to do it anyway:
Retiring Democratic Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin says that Iowa voters shouldn't be fooled because Joni Ernst is "really attractive" and "sounds nice."He's not reducing her to her looks and her personality -- he's warning voters not to reduce her to her looks and personality. The point he's making is that she has an ideology. He's saying that he can see that ideology without being distracted by the slickness and the smile and the gee-whizziness of her campaign -- he just thinks an awful lot of voters must be too goddamn stupid to do the same.
"In this Senate race, I’ve been watching some of these ads," Harkin said at the Story County Democrats' annual fall barbecue last week honoring the retiring senator. "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 gotta 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."
He has a point.
I understand: You can't say what Harkin said the way he said it. You don't want to bring up a female candidate's looks at all -- women are routinely judged on their looks rather than who they are, most often to their detriment (sometimes because they're deemed insufficiently attractive, sometimes because they're deemed too attractive to be taken seriously). But Harkin was trying to say that being judged on looks and personality is working to Ernst's advantage. He's right. (You probably think he's blaming her as a woman for that, but I think he's blaming a slick campaign.)
Ernst says no one would talk about her this way if her name were John. It's true that it would be a lot less likely -- but ask yourself whether JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama took advantage of sex appeal. Ask Michael Dukakis if short stature or lack of charisma or a large head on a small body that looked even larger in a helmet cost him votes in 1988. Ask Karl Rove if his decision to make George W. Bush's career had anything to do with seeing W in a pair of jeans with a tobacco-tin ring on his back pocket and thinking, "He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have" (or, in another Rove interview: "Huge amounts of charisma, swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile, just charisma -- you know, wow").
Well, Ernst will probably win. So let's try to concentrate on her voting record. I seriously that she's being groomed for superstar status, even if she votes exactly like Bachmann. And I worry that, if the GOP sends the word out that it very much wants her judged on appearance and personality, the Beltway press is going to agree -- and we're going to wake up on in fall 2016 or 2020 and find this extremist on the national ticket.