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Michele Bachmann’s headaches

at 11:23 AM ET, 07/20/2011


Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., acknowledges the crowd before a political rally, Tuesday, July 19, 2011, in downtown Aiken, S.C. (AP Photo/The Augusta Chronicle, Rainier Ehrhardt)
The revelation that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann suffers from severe migraine headaches highlights two potential issues for her rapidly rising 2012 presidential bid: her fitness for office and the role her myriad former staffers will play in shaping her introduction to a wider political audience.

The first issue is obvious. Fitness for office — essentially “Can this person do the job for which they are running?” — is a basic building block of any campaign, particularly with a candidate like Bachmann who remains very much an unknown commodity for voters.

If voters have doubts about whether a candidate is up to the job, everything else — positions on issues, likability, electability — take a back seat.

Knowing that, Bachmann’s campaign sought to quickly stomp out the idea that the headaches were either not under control or had the potential to incapacitate her for extended periods of time.

“Let me be abundantly clear — my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines and will not affect my ability to serve as commander in chief,” she said in a statement.

Bachmann is clearly hoping to put the story behind her although a handful of reports today — one from the New York Times and another from Politico — suggest that her struggles with headaches are both debilitating and well known among those who work for her.

The Politico report in particular details a series of incidents that caused Bachmann to either miss votes or planned political events due to the headaches.

Until the extent of Bachmann’s headaches — and the impact they have had on her congressional career — come fully to light, it’s hard to see the fitness for office questions disappearing completely.

A look back at the history of health questions in the context of presidential campaigns suggests that while the headache questions may linger for Bachmann’s entire candidacy, they aren’t likely to derail it unless something more damaging comes out.

The best known incident of health questions impacting a presidential campaign was in 1972 when reports surfaced that Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate, had suffered from depression and had been treated with electric shock therapy.

While McGovern initially stood by Eagleton, the focus on whether the Missouri Democrat would be able to assume the office of the presidency dogged the campaign and eventually led Eagleton to step aside from the ticket.

The Eagleton episode was the exception to the rule when it comes to the impact of health concerns in presidential politics, however.

In 1984, there were questions about whether President Ronald Reagan was too old to stand for a second term — he was 73 — and his occasional forgetfulness in public kept the story going. But, Reagan masterfully turned his age into an asset during a debate with Sen. Walter Mondale and swept to a second term.

In the 1992 presidential race, Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) had to deal with a series of questions about whether he was fit for office after battling cancer five years before.

Tsongas came up short in that race though it’s hard to say that concerns about his health were at the root of his defeat. He died in 1997 after a re-occurrence of cancer.

There are myriad other examples of politicians who faced health questions — John Kennedy in 1960 (overall ill health), John Kerry in 2004 (prostate cancer), John McCain in 2008 (age) to name a few. Some of those candidates won, others lost. But it’s hard to directly ascribe any of those outcomes to health questions.

That leads us to the second less-covered-but-no-less-important problem that the Bachmann headache story shines a light on: the huge amount of turnover in her congressional staff.

Both the original Daily Caller story as well as Politico’s follow up quote former Bachmann aides anonymously making the case that her migraine problems are real and problematic.

And, this isn’t the first time that a former Bachmann staffer has raised doubts about her. Ron Carey, a former Bachmann chief of staff and former Minnesota Republican party chairman, has said publicly that the Congresswoman is neither electable nor ready for the job of president.

Bachmann’s staff turnover is the stuff of legend on Capitol Hill. In the space of her first term in office, she had three different chiefs of staff and experienced any number of other staff departures as well.

A cavalcade of disgruntled former aides (are there ever “gruntled” former aides?) willing to go public with questions and criticisms of Bachmann is decidedly problematic for her presidential candidacy.

After all, if those who know (or knew) her best lack faith in her ability to do the job effectively, it will almost certainly force voters to re-examine their first, generally positive impressions of her.

And, if you think that voters won’t hear about the criticisms launched against Bachmann by her former aides, you don’t follow campaigns very closely. It’s a lead pipe lock that her rivals are collecting those quotes in their opposition research files and will use them liberally on television ads if/when the time comes.

The question for Bachmann is whether Carey’s comments and the migraine stories are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to former staffers venting or represent the full extent of the critique of Bachmann that will be offered by former employees.

There’s little question that the migraine story — and the questions it raises about both Bachmann’s fitness for office and what role her former staff will play in the presidential race — is the first major bump in what has been a quick ascent in national politics for the Minnesota Republican to date.

Putting the story behind her as quickly and completely as possible will be critical as she seeks to build momentum for the Ames Straw Poll next month.

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