Iowa Republican senatorial candidate State Sen. Joni Ernst looks on before a live televised debate at Iowa Public Television studios, April 24, 2014.
Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP

Again with the WMD?

There’s a wide-open U.S. Senate race in Iowa this year, where Sen. Tom Harkin (D) is retiring after 30 years as a progressive champion. Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is the early favorite, though it’s still early and Iowa is a competitive battleground.
It’s a fairly crowded Republican primary field, with no obvious frontrunner, though state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is going to great lengths to help put some distance between her and her GOP rivals. It was Ernst, for example, who ran the notorious castration ad, and it was Ernst who pulled off the rare feat of picking up endorsements from both Mitt Romney (representing the party establishment) and Sarah Palin (representing the activist base).
But Ernst is also using her military background in a curious way. The conservative Republican, whose claims about her National Guard service have drawn scrutiny, made these comments to the Des Moines Register’s editorial board on Friday.
The Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction: “We don’t know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the intelligence that was operated on. I have reason to believe there was weapons of mass destruction. My husband served in Saudi Arabia as an Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that’s a hot-button topic in that area.”
If you watch the video, you can appreciate just how odd the exchange really was. Ernst begins by endorsing the notion that U.S. troops were deployed based on “a clearly defined mission.” When the editorial board noted that Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Ernst pushes back, saying twice she has “reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
And what reason might that be? “I will tell you,” the Republican says, “my husband served in Saudi Arabia as an Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that’s a hot-button topic in that area.”
If a Republican Senate candidate had made this comment in, say, May 2003, it would still be wrong, but it would at least be understandable. But for a credible candidate to make this argument – with a straight face, as if the claims deserve to be taken seriously – in May 2014 is truly ridiculous, even by the standards of a Republican primary race.
What’s especially annoying about Ernst’s rhetoric is the way in which she subtly suggests her military background offers her unique insights, as if the entire world may know one thing, but she and her husband have “reason to believe” something else.
But that’s bonkers. If Ernst’s website is accurate, she ran convoys through Kuwait and into southern Iraq during the war, but if that led her to believe all of the evidence and independent investigations are wrong, she’s living in a dream world.
And while this would seem to be the kind of misstep that would doom a Senate candidacy, chances are that Ernst won’t pay any price at all for her bizarre comments. Why not? Because as Dave Weigel noted, a whole lot of Republicans share her confusion: “As recently as 2012, when polled on questions about the Iraq War, a supermajority of Republicans – 67 percent – thought that Iraq had WMD when America went in.”
Inside the GOP bubble, where inconvenient facts are kept at bay, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was based on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which makes sense because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Inspectors, international observers, every independent report from every neutral source, liberals, news organizations, fact-checkers and even Bush administration officials now concede the WMD weren’t there, but for the right, there’s a reflexive response: “What do they know?
And so we’re stuck in a political Groundhog Day, forced to hear the same falsehoods over and over again, even a decade later.
The Iowa primary is two weeks from today. Recent polling suggests Ernst has a slight lead.