Poverty snobs, ‘bread bag’ politics
During her live, nationally televised Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Sen. Joni Ernst inserted a cute story from her childhood that seemed to offer everything a homespun narrative should offer — except a point.
“You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes,” the 44-year-old former Iowa state senator recalled. “So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.”
Was that embarrassing? No, said Ernst, “because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.”
A heartwarming story, I thought, but why was she telling it? If childhood poverty is a qualification for office, I should run for president.
I turned to Twitter and, sure enough, a new meme was born in the Twitterverse:
“For every kid to wear bread bags on their feet,” quipped @loudspike, “we first gotta make sure families can afford 2 loaves of bread.” I liked that one.
“Now that she is a senator,” tweeted @brewergreg, “she can finally afford ‘loafers.’ ” Good one.
“I might be wearing breadbags on my feet right now, for all you people know,” typed @tomtomorrow. In fact, Ernst wasn’t. Her feet wore light-brown camouflage-patterned pumps with 2 1/2-inch heels that set off another Twitter storm. The 44-year-old Iraq War vet and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard was ready for battle.
Ernst’s bread bag story was intended to illustrate how her parents taught her to “live simply, not to waste.” That’s a softer version of the message in her now-famous 2014 campaign ad in which she strolls through a hog barn to tell us that she grew up castrating hogs on a farm. “So when I get to Washington,” she says, “I’ll know how to cut pork.”
Blammo! The ad went viral and established Ernst as a rising star in the Grand Old Party’s tea party wing. She also became the leading example of what the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich called the “bumpkinification” of the midterm elections.
“Bumpkinizing,” a term Leibovich attributed to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, is the process of deglamorizing a candidate to enhance his or her appeal to ordinary people by making the candidate look and sound as ordinary, down-home and folksy as possible.
There’s nothing new about pols dressing down, hiding their advanced degrees and inserting a few more aw-shucks bromides that their granddaddy told ’em into their speeches. But in today’s media age and soaring campaign costs, it takes skill to avoid overdoing the hayseed approach as much as to underdo it.
Ernst, for example, avoided the pitfalls of, say, Christine O’Donnell, who sunk her own folksy “I’m you” ad in Delaware’s 2010 U.S. Senate race by opening with, “I’m not a witch.”
Watch for a new wave of poverty snobbery to rise with the 2016 presidential race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee leads the pack, testing the waters with his new book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” a bold bunch of aw-shucks pokes at the liberal “Harvard and Hollywood folks” in their coastal “bubbles,” far away from the good ol’ decent heartland folks in the “flyover states.”
In the past, I have praised Huckabee’s peacemaker approach to today’s polarized politics. “I’m conservative,” he likes to say, “but I’m not angry with anyone.” Nice. But after his nice-guy approach went nowhere in the angry conservative talk-radio world, I am disappointed to see him go full virtue-bully in his new book by attacking Jay Z and Beyonce as examples of a “culture of crude.”
Really? Obviously Huckabee’s trying to score points with his base by attacking stars who President Obama has praised in the past. But, as “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart pointed out in an on-air argument with the former Baptist minister, hasn’t Huckabee listened to the lyrics of “Cat Scratch Fever,” a hit tune by his own friend, rock star Ted Nugent?
Huckabee feebly tried to argue that Nugent’s song was intended for adults. Tell that to Tipper Gore. She’s been blasting Nugent, among others, for raunchy lyrics since the mid-1980s.
It’s tricky to play the bumpkin in politics. In today’s media age, there aren’t as many rubes anymore.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.