It is a truth universally acknowledged (or should be, if it isn’t) that if you want to turn the public against a public figure, the best trick is to portray him as dumb or boring.
Al Gore? Mitt Romney? Boring. Dan Quayle? Sarah Palin? Dumb. As Cynthia Heimel once wrote of seamed stockings and seduction, the labels “aren’t subtle, but they certainly do the job.”
As the Bachmann labelers have discovered, those are the only options for candidates one hopes to dismiss. Crazy doesn’t work. Crazy won’t stick.
“Crazy” only works when your audience is limited to people who already agree with you. The Huffington Post’s slideshow of “The Craziest Things Michele Bachmann Has Ever Said” does wonders when you’re a dedicated reader of the Huffington Post. But what about everyone else? One man’s crazy is another man’s clairvoyant. My unhinged rant is your prophecy.
And so at the first available opportunity, the narrative shifted. Suddenly, it was not that Bachmann was crazy. It was that she was – dumb.
This was a miscalculation. Michele Bachmann has many traits, but “dumb” is not among them.
“But she misidentified the location of the shot heard round the world! But she mixed up John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy!” This could happen to anyone, and it often does. And since these incidents, unlike her forerunner Palin, Bachmann has turned out to be anything but an unceasing fountain of gaffes. “Say something foolish!” the microphone-toters goad. “Are you a flake?” No, and the question backfired.
With Palin, dumb stuck. She had a unique gift for saying what people who didn’t think were thinking, a tendency to coin new words and a willingness to pose on the covers of magazines with dutifully deployed winds blowing her hair that would make most politicians get a bit wee-wee’d up. (I may not be using that correctly.)
This is not Bachmann’s milieu at all.
Not only isn’t she dumb, she doesn’t even sound dumb most of the time, which is more than can be said for most of us, at least once you get us into a cocktail setting or anywhere near a microphone.
And people started to notice.
To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, you can only fool a limited number of the people all the time.
Bachmann was clearly not the gaffe-prone fool we’d been led to expect.
Need proof? She’s surging in the polls. She leads in Iowa – even after a debacle of a weekend when she signed a vow that, among other things, described slavery as a stable, family institution and homosexuality as a choice and tried to ban pornography.
There is an increasingly frantic air surrounding her. “If only crazy were still on the table!” the Narrative-Crafters keen, tearing out their hair. “Why does she insist on saying things that people agree with, and doing so in such a calm and level voice? Where are the gaffes we were promised?”
Dumb would have worked so well. Now the People Who Snap Up These Things are squatting in the bushes outside the Bachmann tent waiting for another historical faux pas to emerge, and it looks as though they are going to be waiting a rather long time. “Are you sure that quotation is right?” they ask. “Are those exactly accurate numbers?”
Does it matter? She’s left through the back flap and is off leading the pack.
“Is there anything else we can do?” the Narrative-Crafters ask. “She’s said she has a titanium spine. Maybe we can portray her as some sort of bizarre mutant who will cause problems for the country when going through airport security.”
“Maybe we can do something with her family,” someone else says. “She raised 23 children.”
“No, she reared them,” someone else at the meeting says, and this line of inquiry goes nowhere.
Petition by petition, remark by remark, some are scrabbling to swing the pendulum back to crazy. But this is dangerous ground as well. “Crazy” has long been a Bachmann trademark. After all, that’s where the money is these days. It’s the new political arena where the race goes to the loudest. Yell it! The more egregious, the better! Sit back and wait for the money to pour in. If it doesn’t fit on a T-shirt, it probably isn’t a worthwhile discussion point.
So what’s one to do? Our discourse has been degraded to the point where someone can say that Elton John is corrupting the youth and people will hand her money hand over fist.
“Does she actually think Elton John is corrupting the youth?” we ask. “Or is she merely cynical enough to say so?”
This is too complicated! Can’t she just miss another historical date?
The best answer to a candidate like Michele Bachmann is to treat her like anyone else. Dull she isn’t. Dumb she isn’t either. So the worst thing one could do would be not to take her seriously. Tackle her arguments one at a time, respond to her with the respect that any candidate is due! Don’t wait for a gaffe in the hopes of dismissing her as a lightweight. I doubt any of those will be forthcoming.
But maybe I’m crazy.