Freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) won election in November by campaigning as a down-home farm girl. She not only won over Iowa voters last fall but captivated House and Senate Republican leaders in Washington as well.
Those leaders rolled the dice Tuesday night by entrusting Ernst, 44, to deliver the formal response to President Obama’s State of the Union address – in the process making her the face of the new GOP majority in Congress. By most measures, it proved to be a good strategic move.
Without any of the gaffes that have dogged the other politicians who delivered the Republican response in the recent past, Ernst remained smooth, deliberate and stayed on message.
A former Iowa state senator and Army Reserve and National Guard officer for the past 21 years, Ernst quickly dispensed with the obligatory biographical introductions. She noted that when she grew up poor in Red Oak, Iowa, she had only one good pair of shoes and had to wear plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry in the rain, like other kids whose families had little but sweat, hard work to get them through the hard times.
Then she abruptly changed direction and went for Obama’s jugular.
“We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs,” she said. “We see the hurt caused by canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they’ll be able to leave to their children.”
Earlier in the evening, President Obama had described a nation very much on the mend, one with a “growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production.” However, Ernst offered viewers a parallel political universe.
“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” she said. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”
In terms of a checklist of GOP priorities, Ernst provided one last night:
- Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health care initiative.
- Correct “executive overreach” – meaning reverse the president’s recent order allowing nearly five million illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
- Pass legislation to bypass Obama and approve the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline.
- Cut wasteful spending and balance the budget – but without tax increases like the ones Obama is proposing to help the middle class.
- Work to “confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions” – by increasing economic sanctions on Tehran to force the country to strike a deal with the U.S. to curb its drive to develop nuclear weapons.
Echoing a theme of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who chose Ernst to deliver the response, she said, “Congress is back to work on your behalf, ready to make Washington focus on your concerns again.”
If Republicans were looking for a fresh-faced lawmaker with views that are the antithesis of Obama’s, they couldn’t have done much better. In her successful campaign for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin in a blue state, Ernst embraced “Iowa values,” or self-reliance and limits on federal intervention in local and state matters. She has vowed to scale back or eliminate the Department of Education, and she believes in redirecting many federal agency roles to state and local government. She also supports a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
In the weeks since Republicans won control of Congress, McConnell, Boehner and Obama have outlined some areas of possible agreement, on trade, infrastructure spending and some elements of corporate tax reform. While it was a small part of her speech, Ernst too suggested that some compromise was possible.
“There’s a lot we can achieve if we work together,” she said. “Let’s tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific. Let’s sell more of what we make and grow in America over there so we can boost manufacturing, wages, and jobs right here, at home.”
Ernst said another priority would be to simplify America’s outdated and loophole-ridden tax code, lower the rates, “and create jobs, not pay for more government spending.” She said Obama had already expressed some support for these kinds of ideas. “We’re calling on him now to cooperate to pass them.”
The president’s speech triggered a cacophony of responses beyond Ernst’s speech. Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL) delivered the Tea Party response, dismissing Obama’s address as “pretty much the same rhetoric we’ve heard the past six years. Further burdening the American economy with even higher taxes is wrong,” he said. “Just as more debt and more unfunded programs are wrong.”
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), both political aspirants, gave their own responses, while Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) delivered a Spanish translation of Ernst’s remarks.
The Fiscal Times’ Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.
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