June 27, 2018

Back in 1976, in the era of collective American entertainment experience, we gathered as kids around the console TVs for what amounted to national viewings of primetime movies, big events, like John Travolta’s “Boy in the Plastic Bubble.”

It seemed an awful, isolated life for this plastic-protected kid, born with a deficient immune system, hermetically sealed from all meaningful human contact.

We watched the made-for-TV movie and went to school as second-graders feeling terrifically sorry for Travolta’s character.

He didn’t choose that life.

It’s not fair. Who could live like that?

As it turns out, millions of Americans can — people who have self-selected online existences in filter bubbles in which they see, hear and feel only “news” and “information” with which they agree. The bubble is structured with ideological reinforcement, tribal tropes and confirmation bias.

And this is why Iowa Republicans’ strategy of using economic-class-based attacks against the Democratic nominee for governor, well-heeled Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell, whose family actually donated Terrace Hill to the state, may just work in spite of the head-spinning hypocrisy.

Republicans are defending their billionaire president, while sounding more populist than Tom Harkin (who in his in 1992 presidential campaign announcement speech in Madison County said he wanted to take a sledgehammer to President George H.W. Bush’s feet of clay) in seeking to diminish the Iowa-ness of Hubbell. It’s one of the more remarkable political juggling acts I’ve seen in a quarter century, right on par with self-described feminists voting for Bill Clinton — twice.

Perhaps the issue for Republicans is not the Trump and Hubbell money but how it is spent. Trump lavishes cash on things regular guys imagine they’d loose riches on, were they, too, swimming in dollars — trysts with porn stars, plenty of burgers, casino visits, golf outings and lots of things emblazoned with their names, especially the Trump steaks. Hubbell, on the other hand, uses his money to buy books, travel with his family and donate to the arts and places like Simpson College.

The main menu item on U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s recent fourth-annual Roast and Ride wasn’t the pulled pork. It was Fred Hubbell.

Ernst and her close friend and fellow Republican, Gov. Kim Reynolds, slammed Hubbell as an effete, out-of-touch denizen of the better part of town — a man who lives in a world of “famous names” and “big checks” who they say can’t possibly understand the challenges and culture of everyday Iowans like them.

Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, tagged Hubbell, a member of one of Des Moines’ founding families, as “Sir Frederick Hubbell.” Kaufmann, giddy with the delivery, also clearly relishes calling the Democratic gubernatorial candidate a “prince.”

“Sir Frederick Hubbell, the Privileged Prince of Polk County, can travel all he wants across the state — but the truth is he’s never shown an interest in small town, rural Iowa,” Kaufmann wrote on Twitter June 22. “His superficial photo ops will not change that fact in this election.”

Maybe Kaufmann will change his tune if Hubbell shows up for a Stormy Daniels Night at a Des Moines strip club and lays $130,000 in $1 bills at the feet of the Trump paramour. Make it rain, Fred!

Ernst, at the roast outside of Boone earlier this month, sought to draw strong class and cultural distinctions between Hubbell and Reynolds, a former Clarke County treasurer who grew up in St. Charles and worked as a waitress at Younkers and a checker at Hy-Vee, and graduated from Iowa State University late in life.

“The reason you make a difference, Kim, is because you are one of us,” Ernst said.

Ernst, for her part, grew up on a Montgomery County farm and is the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“Kim is Iowa through and through,” Ernst said, surrounded by hay bales and American flags. “She has grown up just like you and I grew up.”

To hear the Iowa girls tell it, Reynolds is so Iowa you’d think she was baptized five times — in the Mississippi, Missouri, Raccoon, Cedar and Des Moines rivers. The preacher may even have dipped her head in Lake Rathbun.

At the roast and ride, Reynolds delivered the best speech I’ve seen her give since she arrived on the statewide scene in 2010. She’s in her natural habitat as an surpassingly effective class warrior because she very much believes she’s more Iowan, more everyday people, than Hubbell. It’s not a manufactured line of attack from Reynolds. I talked with Reynolds about this, and she genuinely, deep in her St. Charles bones, thinks she’s the real Iowan, and that Hubbell arrived via a Des Moines street named after his family from a terraformed Mars.

But not all Republicans are comfortable with the clear hypocrisy of using class-based tactics in the race, of celebrating their billionaire commander in chief while shredding the Democrats’ millionaire Terrace Hill aspirant. For generations, Republicans have cried foul over the framing of wealthy candidates, from the Bushes to Mitt Romney. Now, when it suits them, they want in on the cash bash?

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a strong supporter of Reynolds, said the GOP strategy of attacking Hubbell as too rich for the job is misguided and could backfire in November.

“By insinuating something that’s kind of ad hominem, I don’t think that’s smart,” Grassley said in an interview with this newspaper in his Washington, D.C., office. “It’s pretty obvious at least to people in Des Moines that he’s a very wealthy person. It may not be in New Hartford, Iowa, but it wouldn’t hurt for the people in New Hartford, Iowa, to hear that. But I think the ‘sir’ thing is a problem.”

Privately, other Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington tell me they agree with Grassley on this.

Grassley, who was first elected by Iowa voters (to the Legislature) during the Eisenhower administration, says he’d advise a different approach for Reynolds.

“I think that the voters want you to stick to policy,” Grassley said. “And I think there’s plenty with what (Hubbell) wants to accomplish that is bad policy and if you just talk about the policy, you’ll win the election.”

So how does Hubbell himself respond to the charge that he doesn’t know the terrors of economic anxiety because of his wealth, that he can’t possibly connect with most of the state on kitchen-table terms or understand day-to-day life for most Iowans?

“I’m only doing what I’m doing because, for me, it’s another way to give back to Iowa,” Hubbell said in response to those questions at an event in Carroll just days after securing his party’s nomination.

Hubbell said he plans to be the top donor to his own campaign to show he’s not going to be a captive of special interests or a candidate beholden to anything but the best interests of Iowa.

“I don’t want other people being able to tell me what to do,” he said.

Hubbell also pointed out the irony of Republicans supporting President Donald Trump, a billionaire real-estate magnate, while criticizing an Iowan like himself for doing well financially.

Those people you are talking to probably voted for some other guy sitting in D.C. right now,” Hubbell said.