The Joni Ernst/Chuck Grassley combo in Iowa's U.S. Senate races

Herb Strentz explores rhetoric from Iowa’s 2014 and 2020 U.S. Senate campaigns and finds parallels between our two Republican senators. -promoted by Laura Belin

Labor Day in even-numbered years usually brings more public interest in politics and the final stage of hopeful campaigns for Congress or the presidency.

This time around, many are driven by dread — dread of elections past, and, oh yeah, fears for the one coming on November 3.

Small wonder, given what “We the people” have inflicted upon ourselves.

Go back to 2014, when Republican State Senator Joni Ernst vied with Democratic U.S. Representative Bruce Braley to see who would succeed U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat.

Who won?

Well, yes, Ernst is running for re-election, but in some ways the winner that time around was Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley.

That’s because in January 2014, Braley briefly positioned himself against Grassley instead of Ernst. Speaking to fellow attorneys at a fundraiser in Texas, Braley said, “If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice” on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Braley spent much of the rest of his campaign apologizing to Iowans for what was perceived as a slight against Grassley. After all, it was the year 2 B.T. (Before Trump), and Grassley’s legacy had not been tarnished as much as it has in Trump times.

So, Ernst/Grassley won, the Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate, and Grassley began a four-year reign as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Braley was right to warn about that outcome, it turns out.

At least that’s the conclusion of Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law. In the 2019 Volume 104 of the Iowa Law Review, Tobias took a careful, detailed look of Grassley’s role as Judiciary chair for two years under President Barack Obama and two years under President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Tobias concluded that under Obama,

Grassley strictly enforced numerous rules and customs, mainly “blue slips,” and seriously delayed the confirmation process. These phenomena meant that the Senate confirmed the fewest appeals court judges since 1897–98. In profound contrast, across the 115th Congress during President Donald Trump’s first two years […], Grassley jettisoned, changed or deemphasized a number of venerable strictures and conventions.

[…] Senator Grassley and the Republican chamber majority exacerbated the selection process’s counterproductive downward spiral, riven by Democratic and Republican politicization, divisiveness, and systematic paybacks, which undermined judicial appointments.

Understandably, a law review article is written for a markedly different audience than, say, readers of Bleeding Heartland or the Des Moines Register. Putting Tobias’s comments in a lay or non-scholarly perspective, many judges and justices and members of the American Bar Association would use words like “ugly” and “evil” to describe the changes in judicial appointments under the Trump-McConnell-Grassley troika.

For its part, the bar association has become more of a spectator to the appointment process — similar to how Iowa’s governor and Republican legislators sought to sideline attorneys in the appointment of Iowa judges.

For his part, Grassley thinks that what Tobias views as the Trump-McConnell-Grassley undermining of the judiciary was a triumph for America. He tweeted in June that the Trump campaign should emphasize “FOUR MORE YEARS OF DRAINING THE SWAMP &Justices.”

The Grassley-Ernst campaign links go even farther back than the 2014 campaign and Braley’s ill-advised private comments in Texas.

An early staple of this year’s campaign for Ernst was alarm about the sinister death tax and how it punishes the family of an industrious farmer. They return to poverty upon their parents’ deaths thanks to a federal tax as punishment for dad’s and mom’s dedication and the 4H awards the kids had won.

Here is how a news release from Grassley put it way back in March 2001:

Repealing the federal death tax is critical to the financial well-being and survival of family farms and small businesses [….]

“Family farmers and small business owners live poor and die rich,” Grassley said. “Their assets are tied up in land, buildings and everything they need to keep things running. When the farmers or business owners die, their children pay a big penalty to the government on their inheritance. The product of a life’s work leaches away like seeds in poor soil.”

Those comments have been echoed in GOP campaigns through the years as evidenced by advertising on Ernst’s behalf targeting her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.

The “death tax” ads strive for new highs on the hate-and-fear meter. They also reached new highs in terms of being outrageous.

“Hogwash” is how Neil Hamilton characterized death tax nonsense in commentary on the opinion pages of the Des Moines Register and at Bleeding Heartland. He pointed out that mom and dad’s “family farm” today would have to have an estate worth $23 million before the estate tax would affect them ($11.5 million, still a nice sum, for one of them).

Hamilton is the former director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University. His mentor at Iowa State was Dr. Neal Harl, who was the Hamilton of his age, as Hamilton is the Harl of our age. Harl is professor emeritus in agriculture and economics at ISU and the former director of the Center for International Agricultural Finance.

He is said to have searched high and low for Iowa family farmers who would be affected by the estate tax and found little or nothing to harvest.

If the “death tax” campaign ads are so deceptive — Hamilton characterized them as “lies” — why are candidates allowed to use them, and why do television stations run them?

Brian Sather, general manager of KCCI-TV in Des Moines, explained in an editorial broadcast on August 7,

“If the individual is a candidate for federal office, KCCI, and other broadcasters, are required by law to sell them advertising time. This is just one of the regulations required of a federally licensed broadcaster. Furthermore, when [we] sell time to a candidate for office – any office – federal law requires we run their commercial as submitted. We can’t censor it through editing or changing it.”

Stations, however, are not prohibited from taking fifteen seconds or so a day to explain to viewers that they are required to run all the ads — good and bad — or offering disclaimers before or after misleading ads. Sather’s editorial was a rare one for the broadcast industry, which, like our system of government, expects the citizen to know better.

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

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