I never imagined anyone like Michele Bachmann when I envisioned the country’s first female president. In fact, I imagined someone quite different. In the aftermath of the defeats of Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton on the national stage in 2008, I created President Charlotte Kramer, the fictional heroine of my novel “Eighteen Acres.” I wanted to spend some time with the woman who ultimately cracks that final glass ceiling in American politics, if only in a book.
Kramer was a fantasy president — a principled conservative with Margaret Thatcher’s clarity on foreign affairs and Clinton’s stoic tolerance of the indignities of public office. Yet she strove to be post-partisan, and if Bachmann were in Congress during a Kramer administration, she would be the president’s chief antagonist. But Bachmann does have something in common with my heroine: She has used the experiences, missteps and successes of past female candidates to propel her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
If the Minnesota congresswoman, who is polling strongly in Iowa, does well in the debate there Thursday and claims victory in that state’s key straw poll on Aug. 13, it will be because she learned all the right lessons from the failed campaigns of Clinton and Palin. I say that having seen one of those campaigns up close, as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin effort.
Bachmann may not be writing any new rules, but she has resisted the temptation to fight the same old battles. She understands, for instance, that making a factual mistake about American history while on the stump is something that a candidate should acknowledge and apologize for. Even though she has made high-profile errors — naming John Quincy Adams as a founding father, mixing up the geography of the first shots fired in the American Revolution — she has endeared herself to some voters by explaining that she’s simply human and prone to the occasional misstep.
This response contrasts with Palin’s habit of botching basic facts of U.S. history and then turning her guns on anyone who notices. Bachmann hasn’t owned up to every error — certainly not as quickly as her critics might want — but she doesn’t attack those who point out her mistakes. More important, she appears to accept the fact that female candidates are scrutinized more closely than men.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to look too far to see what happens when women fail to adjust for the double standards and higher thresholds for female candidates.
In 2010, it was painful to watch California gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, an accomplished former Silicon Valley executive, get tripped up by a Hillary-esque emphasis on being “tough enough.” It was so overdone, she had to spend the final days of that campaign emphasizing her role as a mother and wife. According to the Los Angeles Times, her campaign’s last mail effort featured “softly focused pictures of the candidate as a young woman and of her two children when they were young, and quotes such as ‘At the end of the day, my family remains my greatest source of pride.’ ” This was an about-face from the aggressive campaign Whitman had waged about jobs and education, and it revealed the unique pressures on women to show voters all sides of themselves, but none too forcefully.
Carly Fiorina, another polished high-tech executive who ran for the U.S. Senate in California, won the Republican primary after trekking far to the right — as Palin did during her time as John McCain’s running mate — and later was not able to capture independent and center-right voters. It was a departure from Fiorina’s role in 2008, when she was McCain’s unofficial ambassador to disaffected Clinton supporters, who were largely Democrats and independents. Her campaign last year suggested that she’d made an ideological shift to the far right. It was posturing, and it didn’t work.
Of course, Bachmann hasn’t been tested in such high-profile contests as Whitman’s and Fiorina’s races, but as a GOP primary contender, she has managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that sank their candidacies.
One of Bachmann’s strategies is to address the experience issue head-on. During Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008, she offered a masterful narrative about her international travel and diplomatic work as first lady, her advocacy on behalf of women and children as an activist and a lawyer, and her record of bipartisan accomplishment in the Senate. Clinton’s claim, made in a campaign ad, that only she was prepared to answer that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House rested in part on the credible assertion that everything she’d done in her life had prepared her to be president.
Bachmann was taking notes. In a CNN debate in New Hampshire this summer, she introduced herself to voters by listing her professional credentials first: “Hi, my name is Michele Bachmann. I’m a former federal tax litigation attorney.” As a congresswoman, she’s clever enough to use the term “experience” to include articulating policy positions and hitting the airwaves to defend them. First elected to represent Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District in 2006, Bachmann has touted a legislative record that leaves an impression of bold leadership: She formed the Tea Party Caucus, opposed the bailout and stimulus bills, and is leading the effort to repeal President Obama’s health-care reforms. Most of that, however, amounts to little more than strongly worded statements.
She was one of the first Republican presidential candidates to voice her opposition to raising the debt ceiling and was one of nine Republicans who voted against the House GOP’s “cut, cap and balance” bill because it did not go far enough. She voted no on the final debt-ceiling compromise, and unlike some of her competitors for the nomination, she communicated her objections consistently and loudly throughout the debate.
In reality, these steps amount to little more than casting votes and issuing news releases. But we’re living in times that remind me of another fictional White House. In the film “The American President,” Michael J. Fox’s character, a White House staffer, describes the American people as so desperate for leadership that “they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” During times such as these, Bachmann passes as courageous.
She has also learned the value of preparation. While many male candidates have recovered from shaky performances on the stump, women often seem doomed after a major flub. In his first debate against John Kerry in 2004, for instance, George W. Bush lost some ground with an appearance that struck voters as impatient and irritable. But he went on to win the election weeks later. Palin, on the other hand, never fully recovered after she appeared confused and uncomfortable answering Katie Couric’s questions about the financial crisis on the day that McCain deemed the economic turmoil dire enough to suspend his presidential campaign.
In the June GOP debate in New Hampshire, Bachmann’s answers were crisp, strategic and smoothly delivered. She knew exactly what kind of opportunity the national television audience afforded her — and she took advantage of the exposure by announcing early in the debate that she had just filed the paperwork to run for president.
Bachmann couples her plumped-up professional résuméwith a compelling personal story. She fostered 23 children and raised five of her own, all while working as a lawyer. To explain her staunchly pro-life positions, she has shared the painful history of a lost pregnancy. Her willingness to make her commitment to the social conservative agenda a personal one guarantees her the same deep, emotional bond to the religious right that Palin was able to forge. Bachmann’s comfort in weaving together the personal, professional and political threads of her life exceeds both Clinton’s and Palin’s and helps explain why she’s so resilient in the face of sharpened attacks from her competitors and greater scrutiny from the news media.
Like Palin, Bachmann seems to exist in parallel realities — she’s adored by her vocal supporters but intensely scrutinized and criticized by others. A controversial story in the mainstream media is either ignored by the conservative press or held out as evidence that Bachmann is being unfairly targeted. Negative coverage by media “elites” does little to weaken the resolve of her devoted followers or dilute their affection. In fact, it’s likely that as the attacks on Bachmann grow harsher, her support will harden and intensify.
This was on display last month when a story surfaced about the candidate’s migraines, and again when her husband’s counseling practice was found to have offered treatment to gay individuals that included prayer to “cure” homosexuality. Bachmann’s poll numbers rose steadily amid the media scrutiny of Marcus Bachmann’s professional offerings and outrage from across the political spectrum.
The fealty of her most loyal supporters will do more than guarantee that negative stories in the mainstream media have little impact. If she succeeds in Iowa’s straw poll, this band of support will broaden to other early-primary states and ensure a lively and lengthy Republican nominating contest.
I doubt there are many people out there who believe that Bachmann will become our country’s first female president, but that has nothing to do with her gender. She holds views that are outside the political mainstream and is unlikely to emerge as her party’s nominee — and even less likely to beat Obama.
But she has done something important for the first female president. With her rise, Bachmann has shown that a laboratory now exists for female candidates who are willing to learn from the women who have come before them.
Nicolle Wallace served as communications director for President George W. Bush and as an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign. She is the author of the novel “Eighteen Acres” and the sequel “It’s Classified,” forthcoming in September.