Over the next few months, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s rapid rise in the 2012 presidential race means she is headed for a period of intense scrutiny — both by her opponents and the media.
So far, the recent media has been basically positive: portraying her as a charismatic congresswoman who draws big crowds at speeches and emerged from the first major presidential debate as the clear winner.
But actually, Rep. Bachmann, who has been a popular presence on the cable news shows for years, has an unhelpful history of saying controversial things. Those statements have been later proven to be significantly stretching the truth or just plain false.
The latest? On Monday in Iowa to announce her presidential bid, Bachmann incorrectly asserted that the actor John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa. In fact, it was serial killer John Wayne Gacy who lived in Waterloo, a whopper that makes this slip-of-the-tongue a potential doozy.
This wasn’t the first time Bachmann has made a seemingly big verbal gaffe on the 2012 campaign trail. In a March trip to New Hampshire, she incorrectly stated that the Revolutionary War began in that state in the cities of Lexington and Concord, when its actual origin was in Massachusetts. She soon corrected the mistake by releasing the statement on Facebook.
But the bigger question for Bachmann, as she attempts to run a serious presidential campaign, is whether she can put such verbal missteps behind her, a possibility, according to political strategists who know her and say she is capable of controlling her own message. But the real question is, whether she needs to bother.
While Bachmann’s slipups on things like John Wayne (Gacy) and the correct location of the battle of Lexington and Concord tend to draw the most media attention, they are not the only example of her tendency to stray from the facts.
In the run-up to her official campaign announcement, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler reviewed several statements that Bachmann has made — and found her wanting.
Kessler reviewed Bachmann’s statements about President Obama’s Medicare plans, Israel and $105 billion in allegedly hidden money in Obama’s health care bill, and given all three statements four pinocchios — a.k.a. as close to false as you can get without being demonstrably false.
One four pinnochio statement of them includes a repeated contention that president intends to replace Medicare with “Obamacare.”
Kessler says he’s totally “befuddled” by Bachmann’s argument, since Medicare already functions as a government program and the 2010 health-care law, which the lawmaker labels “Obamacare,” establishes private health-insurance exchanges in which participants can buy insurance.
Furthermore, he points out that Bachmann voted for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) 2012 budget plan, which, ironically, would convert Medicare in 2022 into a private voucher system with some features of the Obama health-care law.
Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking Web site Politifact has rated 16 things Bachmann has said as either “false” or even worse — “pants on fire,” a sum total that suggests she could well be an opposition researcher’s dream.
In back-to-back appearances by Bachmann over this past weekend, Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace and CBS’ Bob Schieffer tried to address the fact that Bachmann has often made seemingly conflicting statements.
Wallace bluntly asked Bachmann whether she is “a flake” — a question for which he later apologized.
Schieffer tried a similar line of questioning but was unable to get past Bachmann’s talking points. “I don’t believe you answered” the question, he said to Bachmann at one point.
The two appearances are instructive. Even when Bachmann is confronted by her past statements, she’s entirely capable of deflecting the question and changing the subject, a quality marking great politicians.
Neither Wallace nor Schieffer got much of anywhere on their lines of questioning, though Bachmann did admit to Wallace that “a person has to be careful what statements that they make.”
Many observers say Bachmann needs to heed her own advice.
“It’s probably the major determinant of this campaign,” said one source who has worked with Bachmann but is neutral in the 2012 presidential campaign. “If she settles down, she’ll be serious. If she doesn’t, I think she ends up like Sarah Palin.” Added the source of Bachmann: “I think she’s capable of being more thoughtful and careful and doing a better job.”
This evaluation is near-universal among political observers. Many smart political strategists point out that, despite her often creative versions of events, Bachmann is a clever politician who is more than able to keep herself in check.
And, in the early days of her 2012 presidential bid, the Minnesota lawmaker has demonstrated a willingness to expand beyond her inner circle for high-level staff, hiring GOP consultants Ed Goeas and Ed Rollins into her inner circle. She seems to understand that simply doubling down on her popularity within a relatively narrow band of GOP voters isn’t enough to win her the GOP nomination.
But even if Bachmann doesn’t temper her sometimes incorrect and often explosive statements, does that disqualify her?
Observers point out that, with Palin, the media’s scrutiny of what she says often had the effect of galvanizing her conservative supporters. In a Republican primary, they argue, it could actually be a good thing for the media to savage Bachmann. (She certainly came out of the “flake” controversy emboldened.)
“The purveyors of conventional wisdom in the media want to marginalize a presidential candidate who is a proven expert on the federal tax code and a member of the House Select Intelligence Committee,” said GOP strategist Scott Reed. “Watch her poll numbers rise due to this overreach.”
But besides Palin, there’s another comparison to be drawn regarding Bachmann — to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, during his time in politics, was known to drop a few whoppers here and there. He claimed that trees emitted more pollutions than cars and that there was more oil in Alaska than in Saudi Arabia. He also said fascism “was really the basis for the New Deal” and that there was no Russian word for “freedom.”
And yet, he served two terms as president and is widely cited by Republicans as the Founding Father of the modern GOP. Reagan’s success in spite of his misstatements shows that if people believe you have their interests in mind and share their values, they aren’t going to fuss too much with a slip of the tongue here or there.
Bachmann, perhaps more than any candidate in the GOP presidential field right now, has that kind of appeal to average Republican voters. So it is possible that her past statements probably won’t be all that much of an issue, at least in the short-term.
For Bachmann going forward, it’s a matter of degree. If she can lick the problem now or at least reduce the instances, she will probably be fine. If it consumes her campaign and plays into a storyline that she has trouble with the truth, then it could have a very deleterious impact.