For instance, when Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst flirted with the “Agenda 21″ conspiracy theory — a favorite of Glenn Beck, in which the U.S. government and the United Nations are supposedly conspiring to force rural people in Iowa and elsewhere to leave their homes and be relocated to urban centers — national pundits didn’t see it as disqualifying. Nor did they when it was revealed that Ernst believes not only that states can “nullify” federal laws they don’t like (they can’t); and, even crazier, that local sheriffs ought to arrest federal officials implementing the Affordable Care Act, which is quite literally a call for insurrection against the federal government. I guess those are just colorful ideas.
National observers also didn’t find it disqualifying when Tom Cotton, who is favored to become the next U.S. senator from Arkansas, expressed his belief that ISIS is now working with Mexican drug cartels to infiltrate America over our southern border.
Why do candidates like Cotton and Ernst get away with stuff like that, while Grimes gets raked over the coals for not wanting to reveal her vote and someone like Todd Akin can lose a race over his ruminations on “legitimate rape”? It’s because the standard being employed isn’t “Does this statement reveal something genuinely disturbing about this candidate?” but rather, “Is this going to be politically damaging?” Grimes’ chief area of political vulnerability is that she’s a Democrat in Kentucky, where Barack Obama’s approval ratings are low, so whenever the question of Obama comes up, reporters are watching closely to see how deftly she handles it; if she stumbles, they pounce. Akin got hammered for “legitimate rape” not so much because of how bogus and vile the idea is, but because reporters knew it could have serious consequences among women voters, given both the GOP’s constant struggles with women and the fact that Akin’s opponent was a woman.
But during this cycle, Republican crazy just hasn’t broken through at all. It’s almost as if the national press has just come to accept as normal the degree to which the GOP has moved dramatically to the right. At this point so many prominent Republicans have said insane things that after a while they go by with barely a notice. This is an era when a prominent Republican governor who wants to be president can muse about the possibility that his state might secede from the union, when the most popular radio host in the country suggests that liberals like Barack Obama want Ebola to come to America to punish us for slavery, and when the President of the United States had to show his birth certificate to prove that he isn’t a foreigner.
So ideological extremism and insane conspiracy theories from the right have been normalized. Which means that when another Republican candidate says something deranged, as long as it doesn’t offend a key swing constituency, reporters don’t think it’s disqualifying. And so it isn’t.