Staff Columnist

Do politicians' words matter? Or only their votes?

Republicans critical of racist rhetoric often criticized for doing too little

U.S. Rep. Steve King speaks during a reception by the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May. 3, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
U.S. Rep. Steve King speaks during a reception by the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May. 3, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It looks like U.S. Rep. Steve King may finally have a formidable challenger. Some of King’s critics are underwhelmed at the possibility.

State Sen. Randy Feenstra announced last week he plans to seek the Republican nomination in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District in 2020. Feenstra said King’s “caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” a nod to King’s long history of making divisive remarks about ethnic diversity.

For his latest stunt, King was quoted in the New York Times last week as saying, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King later clarified that he does not identify as a white nationalist, but didn’t refute the quote.

All compassionate people should be eager to throw this bum out of office. We may finally have our chance, but some observers were quick to point out that Feenstra — an influential legislator from a northwest Iowa county with 70 percent Republican voters — also has a staunchly conservative voting record. Imagine that! The suggestion in some circles is that Feenstra is hardly preferable to the incumbent.

That critique closely resembles the ongoing debates about President Donald Trump’s similarly indecent rhetoric. The Republican politicians who vocally criticize Trump for his inflammatory comments are commonly dismissed as squishy. If they don’t vote against the Trump agenda, the argument goes, then their objections ring hollow.

Days before he took his seat in the U.S. Senate this month, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney published a Washington Post guest column praising some of Trump’s policy priorities, but sharply criticizing the way the president conducts himself.

“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring,” Romney wrote.

Many detractors were unimpressed by Romney’s stand, insisting he will have to somehow back it up if he really means it.

“If Romney believes what he said in 2016, anything except very vocal criticism of Trump and bona fide actions will expose Romney as just another mealy-mouthed politician,” Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake wrote in a post the day after Romney’s piece was published.

Presumably, “bona fide actions” would mean voting against legislation backed by the White House. But what this line of reasoning fails to recognize is that, with some important exceptions, the items on Trump’s policy agenda have substantial support from conservative and moderate Americans.

Perhaps you think the entire right-wing program is morally corrupt and are determined to destroy it. If so, you probably don’t appreciate my analysis. But the rest of us have a compelling interest in snuffing out toxic discourse within the conservative movement.

On the one hand, resistance leaders tell us Trumpian rhetoric is tangibly dangerous, that it leads to actual violence in the real world, an argument supported by credible research. As the journalist Jamelle Bouie recently put it, “Allow racial contempt to spread unchallenged, and racist violence will eventually follow.” Yet on the other hand, some other liberal critics tell us the rhetorical contrast offered by Trump’s conservative critics is meaningless.

Public policy should be the focus of political life, and we absolutely should criticize our representatives when we feel they’ve taken the wrong side of an issue, but we also can recognize the way politicians talk about those issues matters.

Discussions about style and substance no doubt are intertwined, but they ultimately are distinct. It is perfectly coherent for a reasonable person to reject politicians’ xenophobic statements while still supporting stronger border security and enforcement of immigration laws. Case in point, former President Barack Obama — he did not go out of his way to demean foreigners the way Trump has, yet he still oversaw a surge of deportations, earning him the title “deporter in chief” from pro-migration advocates.

Even if their policy positions are often aligned, the difference between a politician who openly flirts with white nationalism and who doesn’t is not trivial. Words matter.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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