As part of a weekly opinion roundtable, On Leadership invited three experts to analyze Michele Bachmann’s leadership IQ from different perspectives.
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.”
There is one significant difference between Bachmann and many other evangelical political contenders that have come before her—her gender. Evangelicals tend to follow traditional gender roles at home, so it is unusual that Bachmann, a woman of conservative Christian faith, is not only running for the White House but also receiving considerable evangelical support for it. Observers unfamiliar with evangelicalism may wonder then how Bachmann, who couldn’t even serve in formal leadership roles in many evangelical churches, can receive evangelicals’ blessing for something much grander: the nation’s highest office.
The reality is that evangelicals today have crafted a notion of what feminist scholar Marie Griffith calls “practical Christian womanhood,” whereby adherents hold seemingly contradictory notions regarding authority and gender ideals.
Even in her bid for the Oval Office, Bachmann—who has five children of her own and has cared for twenty-three foster children—describes herself as “first and foremost a mother.” This, actually, is political genius. It humanizes her and differentiates her from the rest of the Republican field. Bachmann invokes the mothering motif all the time; she mentioned it three different times in last week’s debate alone. In fact, motherhood is what Bachmann says brought her into politics. She first sought elected office out of a desire to shape Minnesota’s education policy to be more in line with her concerns as a mother. And she often speaks of her political career as a “calling,” which provides additional justification to evangelical voters that her political ambitions merit their support.
Carol Kinsey Goman disected what her body language says about her leadership credentials:
Authority is nonverbally displayed through height and space, and Bachmann made up for her smaller physical stature by wearing high heels, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back. She also used arm and hand gestures that were sweeping and commanded space. Like Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, Bachmann used a popular political hand gesture to emphasize her main points. All of them squeezed their fingers against their thumbs to make an “ok” type of gesture, and then rhythmically kept a beat as they spoke. This “finger tip touch” sends an image of authority but not aggression.
Yet unlike the other candidates, Bachmann also had the warm-cue advantage of “baby face bias,” a term used to describe the tendency found in human beings across all age ranges and cultures to read innocence and candor in faces with features that are similar to an infant’s. (These characteristics include a round head, big eyes, small nose, high forehead and short chin.) Add to that Bachmann’s gestures with open palms, which signaled candor and inclusion, and her smile. Research from Duke University proves that we like and remember those who smile at us, though using such cues deliberately but moderately is one of the most difficult balances for candidates to strike.