Imagine going to the doctor and saying, "My back is killing me. I can barely move. What can you do to help me? Should we do an X-ray? Physical therapy? Medication?" And the doctor responds, "Yeah, I hurt my back once. It was awful. So I know exactly what you're feeling. Anyway, thanks for coming in—just see the receptionist on the way out to pay your bill."
That's not too far off from what we heard from Senator Joni Ernst in the GOP response to the State of the Union address last night. I'm particularly interested in this part:
As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees.
We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning.
You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.
But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.
Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.
These days though, many families feel like they’re working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it.
Because America is still the home of the world's most creative and inspiring strivers, within minutes people were not only posting pictures of themselves with bread bags on their feet to Twitter, some even crafted shoes out of bread to photograph. But what, precisely, is the point of the bread bag story supposed to be?
The point is affinity, saying to ordinary people, in Christine O'Donnell's immortal words, "I'm you." I understand your struggles and fears, because I've experienced them. I don't need to walk a mile in your shoes to feel your pain, because I've already done it, though mine were covered in bread bags. At a time like this, Ernst's ability to tell stories about her hardscrabble roots is no doubt one of the big reasons Republican leaders chose her to deliver their response.
There's a second part of this message that no Republican is going to lay out too explicitly, and Ernst certainly doesn't, which is that because I'm just like you, when it comes time to make decisions about the policies that will affect you, I will have your interests at heart.
But there's a problem with that, because despite the years she spent trudging through the snow in her bread bag feet, Joni Ernst's beliefs about economics are no different from Mitt Romney's, Jeb Bush's, or those of any other Republican whose childhood feet were shod in loafers hand crafted from the finest Siberian tiger leather. There's almost perfect unanimity within the GOP on economic issues, an agreement that the minimum wage should not be raised, that taxes on the wealthy are onerous and oppressive and should be reduced, that regulations on corporations should be loosened, and that government programs designed to help those of modest means only serve to make them indolent and slothful, their hands so atrophied that bootstrap-pulling becomes all but impossible.
But now that both parties agree that they must address economic inequality and stagnant wages, you really need to follow up the tale of long-ago hard times with some specifics about what you want to do now. And this is where things break down. When Ernst got to laying out the GOP economic agenda, here's what she offered: First, the Keystone XL pipeline, which as an economic stimulus is a joke. For whatever combination of reasons—the fact that environmentalists hate it is the most important—Republicans have locked themselves into arguing that a project that will create at most a few thousand temporary jobs is the most important thing we can do to boost the American economy. Second, Ernst said, "Let's tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific." Kind of vague there, but nobody likes trade barriers. She didn't elaborate, however. And finally, "Let's simplify America's outdated and loophole-ridden tax code." Which, again, nobody disagrees with in the abstract, but I doubt there are too many struggling families saying that their biggest problem is that the tax code is riddled with loopholes.
So that isn't much of a program. But she did close by saying that America is "the greatest nation the world has ever known." And it's inspiring that someone like Joni Ernst can start life in the most modest of circumstances, fitted as a baby with tiny booties made from Hostess Twinkie wrappers, then graduate to bread bags as she learned to castrate hogs (they do help keep the blood off your one good pair of shoes), and eventually grow up to do the bidding of the nation's noblest plutocrats. It shows what's possible in this great country of ours.