This piece is part of a roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and three of our On Leadership expert contributors — Theresa Amato, D. Michael Lindsay and Carol Kinsey Goman — about Michele Bachmann’s leadership credentials and challenges.
Prior to Rep. Michele Bachmann’s performance in the first Republican debate of the 2012 presidential primary season, the mainstream media and the liberal blogosphere’s narrative of Bachmann almost began and ended with descriptions of her as a “crazy,” “homophobic” and “extremist” Tea Party leader—one prone to gaffes about historical events and consequently unfit to represent a Minnesota district, much less be president. After the debate, the media now brands Bachmann as a serious GOP contender following her “breakout performance” in a field of seven candidates.
Theresa Amato, a public interest lawyer, is the author of “Grand Illusion, the Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny.” She was the national campaign manager for Ralph Nader’s presidential runs in 2000 and 2004.
Drew Faust, an American historian and the president of Harvard University, on women’s leadership and what the Civil War teaches us about the human tendency to resist change.
Bachmann should be saluted for forcing the media to rewrite its narrative, and, in so doing, paving the way for other media-marginalized candidates—on the right and left. Still, we’ll see how long this new narrative lasts before the homogenizing demands of the Electoral College and a political system favoring the two major parties contributes to a rewriting of the narrative once again to demand a winnowing of the major party candidates.
In the New Hampshire debate, Bachmann was poised and clear and did not waiver in her beliefs, whether one likes them or not. She did not froth at the mouth about “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” She did not go off on wild tangents spouting conspiracy theories. She quoted accurately the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and peppered her answers with phrases from the Bible about how Americans should lead. She spoke with knowledge gleaned from her career as a tax lawyer, her position on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and her experience as a person of faith. Bachmann touted her record, albeit thin, by speaking about legislation she introduced in Congress to overturn signature accomplishments of the Obama administration.
Unlike some of the other candidates, she came across as authentic; there was no flim-flam or modulation of her principles to suit the audience. The public could tell; and the media started its rewrite. Bachmann’s polling rose from single to double digits, second only to Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Her rise offers tangible evidence of the importance of an open debate that lets voters hear from a wide field of candidates with a genuine variety of viewpoints, without self-appointed gatekeepers—be they media hosts or the Commission on Presidential Debates—who artificially narrow debate participation.
Let’s face it, if the U.S. didn’t have so many barriers for third parties and Independents to enter our presidential election system, the Tea Party would likely be a real party with its own ballot lines in the 50 states, rather than a “movement” with sporadic candidacies that’s usually, though not always, subsumed under the right wing of the Republican Party. Instead they just get a “caucus” in Congress. Ask the progressives how that’s been working out for them in the Obama administration! And though CNN has offered to team up with the Tea Party Express to host a debate for Republican candidates around Labor Day, it’s an anomaly; CNN and other media or nonprofits generally don’t invite other movements or minor parties to co-host debates.