Staff Columnist

Joni Ernst is so skeptical, except when we need her to be

Sen. Joni Ernst meets with community leaders at Coralville City Hall on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Sen. Joni Ernst meets with community leaders at Coralville City Hall on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

So a skeptical senator walked into a conspiracy theory this week and became a punch line.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was campaigning for reelection in Waterloo Tuesday when a guy told her he thinks the reported number of people who died of coronavirus, more than 180,000, has been inflated. This is, of course, nonsense, caused by a misreading of a CDC report showing 94 percent of coronavirus deaths involved an underlying health condition and only 6 percent listed coronavirus as a sole cause of mortality.

In the nuttier corners of our republic, this means a cover up. In the real world, it means a person with diabetes who would have lived for years to come instead got COVID-19 and died.

But Ernst told the guy that she, too, is “so skeptical” of the death count, according to the Waterloo Courier, which was on the scene.

“These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst said.

Questioned afterward, Ernst doubled down.

“I heard the same thing on the news,” Ernst said. “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

So death numbers are being inflated, and our doctors and health care workers risking their lives to deal with a pandemic are actually on the take. The senator really should reconsider where she gets “news.”

On Wednesday, Ernst backpedaled, acknowledging 180,000 have died. But the damage was done. A U.S. senator spread the same kind of malicious misinformation you expect to see on Facebook from some dude who went to your high school and barely passed science.

It’s shameful and dangerous, but hardly surprising.

Ernst is skeptical about a lot of important stuff.

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She represents a state where a changing climate has spawned more frequent flooding and extreme weather events, harming communities and agriculture. Not long ago, some of her constituents could look out at a derecho-damaged neighborhood, under a sky made hazy by California wildfire smoke and read reports of two simultaneous hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Oh, and the drought.

Does our burning fossil fuels and puffing carbon into the atmosphere play a leading role in this doomsday scenario? Ernst is so skeptical.

“I can’t make those connections, maybe other folks can,” Ernst said at a town hall in Carroll County last fall, according to Iowa Starting Line. “We do know that we have changing weather patterns, we do have to acknowledge that.”

Ernst was also so skeptical that our dirty water needs to be cleaned up.

She joined up with big agricultural and industrial interests to deride and demagogue the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. rules, which clarified how the Clean Water Act protects tributary streams and wetlands from pollution. Agriculture exemptions were left in place, but Ernst couldn’t let facts or science get in the way of a good political hit job. “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government,” Ernst told reporters in 2018 as the Trump administration rolled out a far more narrow definition of protected waters.

A COVID cover up. Tire track inspectors. I’m sensing a curious pattern, and not in the weather.

Ernst also was so skeptical back in March that Americans thrown off the job by the pandemic deserved $600 in additional unemployment benefits. She also was so skeptical they needed paid sick leave.

What’s too bad is when we needed Ernst to be so skeptical, she threw caution to the wind.

Ernst campaigned hard for President Donald Trump in Iowa. When Trump stood before throngs promising to smash trade deals benefiting Iowa farmers and manufacturers for decades, Ernst should have been skeptical it would be good for her state. She should have been more skeptical when he demonized immigrants who Ernst knows play an important role in Iowa’s economy.

She should have been more skeptical of the administration’s hollow biofuel promises after it used refinery waivers to slash demand for ethanol. She should be skeptical of Trump’s commitment to veterans and fitness to be commander in chief amid reports he called service members “suckers” and “losers.” And she should be so skeptical that this president has any idea how to control an uncontrolled pandemic, the one that’s killed more than 180,000.

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But Ernst is sticking by the president, tight. Once, it seemed her reelection was a foregone conclusion. But now, you’ve got to be skeptical.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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