While campaigning for the Republican nomination in the Iowa senatorial race, Joni Ernst had called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. When she was called on this claim in a general election debate, Ernst’s response was a mess that both praised the federal Clean Water Act and seemed to call for state-based environmental regulation. Conservative journalist Byron York observed that Ernst was “definitely not in control of the question.” Perhaps it might be better to say that Ernst was willing to be neither an Abraham Lincoln nor a Charles Sumner.

When he ran for senator from Illinois in 1858 and president in 1860, Lincoln practiced a combination of principle and prudence. He argued against the evils of slavery with eloquence, but his policy agenda was modest and aimed at the swing voters of the Midwest. While he thought slavery was wrong everywhere at all times, his program was to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories. He did not suggest constitutional amendments banning slavery throughout the country. It would have been electoral suicide. Lincoln carefully chose the ground that united swing voters with anti-slavery opinion and tried to build out from there.

That was not the only worthy form of anti-slavery politics. Political activists like William Lloyd Garrison and elected officials from safe constituencies like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner adopted more radical tones and policies. This was a different form of persuasion. Garrison and Sumner were never going to get the vote of the swing voter in Illinois or Pennsylvania. But they did get the attention of those voters. They could force swing voters to confront truths the swing voters would prefer to avoid. While this meant that the Garrisons and the Sumners were unpopular with swing voters, their more inflammatory form of anti-slavery politics made it easier for somewhat more moderate (in both tone and substance) politicians to campaign on opposition to slavery.

On the EPA, Ernst was like neither prudent like Lincoln nor forthrightly combative like Sumner. She struck a radical pose in the nomination stage, but she was unwilling to try to persuade anybody of her rightness in the general election. She seemed to hope that by mentioning growing up on a farm, incoherently praising the Clean Air Act, and proposing that states take over environment regulation she would be able to muddle through to the next question. She neither chose favorable ground on which to fight, nor sought to change anybody’s mind.

She isn’t the first candidate to have this problem. In 2010, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle talked about “Second Amendment” remedies if the then Democrat-controlled Congress continued on its way. In 2010, Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck flirted with the idea of a 23 percent national sales tax in the primary stage before disavowing the idea in the general election.

Angle and Buck lost to their liberal opponents and have since become exhibits of Tea Party incompetence. Ernst is more poised than either of those candidates, and President Obama is less popular now than in 2010. She should win, but there is a self-destructive dynamic at work here. Candidates say things that they will not defend (or try to fake their way out of) in the general election, and, in return, populist conservatives get, at most, a momentary rush of solidarity when the voters are not watching. The entire exercise is pointless for both sides. The candidates risk their general election prospects, while populist conservatives see neither their ideals defended nor their policy preferences advanced. There is no more chance of the EPA being abolished than there is of the income tax being replaced with a national sales tax.

That does not simply mean we need better candidates. It would be better if we had better expectations from the same candidates. Conservative voters in competitive constituencies should expect their candidates to act more like Lincoln. That means the candidates should have principles but also policy agendas that are plausible given the state of public opinion in those constituencies. When a candidate in a competitive constituency proposes abolishing the EPA, even conservatives, especially conservatives from competitive constituencies, should recognize a danger sign. When candidates see that voters reward a combination of principle and policy realism, candidates will be less likely to make self-destructive statements in exchange for a smattering of applause. That doesn’t mean that no one should propose abolishing the EPA, or making large changes to the tax code, or sharply restricting the abortion license. Charles Sumner still has a place, but that place is not Iowa in 2014.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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