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.
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.
Bachmann will face increasing pressure to modify her views and evangelical language if she wants a chance at the Republican nomination. To get the massive financial and organizational support it takes to win a national election, she will likely have to bend to a Republican general election plan. That plan, dictated by an arcane Electoral College, pressures candidates to make three, poll-tested points and repeat them ad nauseum to cater to the narrow slice of Independents up for grabs in the dozen or so states whose electoral votes might break for either party. Bachmann will be “harmonized to the middle” and her ideas and idiosyncrasies may be snuffed out if they don’t poll broadly or well with fence-sitting, so-called Independents, who generally vote only for two-party candidates.
If not, soon enough media commentators will start saying that the field should be narrowed, that the debates should have only “serious” candidates (as defined by the media and its polls). Remember how some in the media determined who was “viable” in the past, calling for Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun to be cut out of the primary debates of 2004 and 2008?
Yes, there will be stories about Bachmann’s radical views, but so what? In the first GOP debate, she destroyed the effort to pigeonhole her as “nuts,” rather than as a real person with principles and viewpoints shared by a portion of the public. Every time the media paints caricatures of the candidates or the Tea Party, the American people should now be able to say, “Hey, I heard Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul for myself and I refuse to have them interpreted for me.”
In this Republican field, for now a power vacuum, anything can happen. Politics should be unpredictable and not the mind-numbing homogenization that has left voters with two dull voices and poor choices, election cycle after election cycle.
If Bachmann lived in a true multi-party system, she could retain her views. Instead, she is likely to be swarmed by campaign consultants to make her “mainstream.” Bachmann has drawn an early line in the sand by stating in the first debate that she believes “in principles over party.” To hear anyone utter those words in an ever-more party-disciplined Congress, dominated by leaders who will shut down a member who doesn’t toe the party line, is to feel a breath of fresh air, even if one can’t abide her opposition to EPA policies, gay marriage and reproductive rights.