Republican candidate for president Michele Bachmann’s star power was already on the rise when Fox News host Chris Wallace helped to turbo-charge her campaign by condescendingly asking her in an interview Sunday, “Are you a flake?”
Whatever you think the answer might be, and however odd it may have sounded coming from a Fox News host, Wallace’s question was patronizing, and is sure to raise the heckles of the Minnesota congresswoman’s conservative fans—not to mention plenty of female Iowa Republicans who had been sitting on the fence about where to cast their vote. Mark my words: The evangelical feminism that’s inspired by Bachmann, as well as Sarah Palin, is sure to get a boost from Wallace’s condescending query.
That might seem like a contradictory outcome. Questioning the seriousness of a leader, or calling out their penchant for making controversial statements, might seem like it would do little but weaken the candidate’s chances. If the media, conservative pundits or party leaders raise enough doubts—intentionally or not—about a candidate’s capabilities, the public could start to believe them. In today’s media-frenzied society, reputations are molded, fairly or no, not only by what political leaders say and do but by what Washington talking heads say, often repeatedly, about them.
One need look no further than Bachmann’s potential rival, Sarah Palin, to see the strength and enthusiasm that can be generated when a popular right-wing figure is criticized by the media or by their party’s mainstream. The more questions that are raised about either woman’s intelligence, experience or seriousness, the more energy their fans seem to have. (As Matt Taibbi wrote about Bachmann in Rolling Stone recently with his own brand of vitriolic polemical journalism, “every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger.”) Whether it’s a reaction to perceived sexism, bias or both, the damage any condescension may cause seems to be equaled, at the very least, by further zealousness on the part of their followers.
Will that invigorated base be enough to counteract a media narrative that’s been shaped of Bachmann—which fairly or not, posits that she’s an extremist loose cannon? There’s little question that story line is evolving after Bachmann’s star turn at the first debate of the Republican primary season, in which she surprised many with her confidence, poise and conservative bona fides that now have her in second place among Iowa voters in the latest poll.
Wallace, of course, has apologized, a gesture Bachmann appears to have said she won’t accept. As a result, the episode is likely to linger in the news (ahem), boosting her followers’ energy and possibly posing damage to her reputation as Wallace’s question gets repeated in the news. A risk? Certainly. But in this case, it looks like one she’s more than willing to take.
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