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Politics / ANALYSIS

Bachmann's Credibility Gap

The fire-breathing rhetoric that wins her support can be a turnoff.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., on June 17 in New Orleans, Louisiana.(JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES)

photo of Beth Reinhard
June 27, 2011

A chastened Chris Wallace apologized for asking Rep. Michele Bachmann, “Are you a flake?’’ during a Fox News Sunday interview. But his question forced the Minnesota Republican to confront the single-largest obstacle in her path to the GOP nomination.

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“Her biggest challenge is overcoming the credibility gap. Is she ready for prime time?’’ asked Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist who has is not aligned with any of the 2012 presidential candidates.  “The elites in the media and in the Republican Party are quick to dismiss her.’’

 

(PICTURES: Bachmann mixes up her John Waynes, and other politicians' mishaps)

Bachmann herself tacitly acknowledged her credibility problem when she conceded Sunday on CBS News’ Face the Nation  that she went too far when she condemned Barack Obama’s “anti-American views’’ in 2008. "There's a lot of things I wish I would have said differently," she told the show's host, Bob Schieffer.

The congresswoman's travel schedule on Monday shows her plotting the traditional route to the nomination through the earliest-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Whether she can walk the line between the take-no-prisoners rhetoric that made her a tea party star and the sobriety expected of a national party standard-bearer is the more important and trickier navigational challenge. It’s a tough balancing act that will determine whether she can go toe to toe with the early favorite for the nomination, Mitt Romney.

“She’s something of a phenomenon right now, and we don’t know if it’s going to last,’’ said Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, whose recent survey for The Des Moines Registerfound Bachmann essentially tied with Romney. “Now she has to convince people that she’s the real thing.’’

Some of Bachmann's strengths also present challenges:

  • She’s a member of Congress, one of the most unpopular institutions in the country. No House member has become a presidential nominee since James Garfield in 1880. Bachmann’s best defense against being pigeonholed as a congresswoman from Stillwater, Minn., is her profile in the tea party movement and her strong national fundraising network.
  • She’s a woman. Being an attractive female draws national attention but means she has to prove she has brains, too. No wonder she has been emphasizing her experience as a federal tax attorney. Although Bachmann has repeatedly insisted that she doesn't want gender to be a factor in how she's judged, she made it something of a centerpiece in her campaign launch, picking the former home of the Waterloo Women’s Club in Iowa for her official campaign announcement, and citing the influences of her single mother and Republican grandmother on her life. The song played while she greeted supporters after her announcement speech? Tom Petty’s hit American Girl.
  • She’s a social conservative. Her hard-line positions against abortion, gay rights, and climate-change science make her unpalatable to many moderate Republicans and independents. Democrats openly joke about her being their ideal Republican nominee because of her potentially narrow appeal in a general election. "Anyone who has not taken her seriously yet needs to sit up straight,’’ said Tamara Scott, the Iowa director of Concerned Women for America, a religious conservative group. “Hopefully people will give her a fair chance.’’
  • She stretches the truth. Bachmann’s flame-throwing attacks on President Obama have helped her raise millions of dollars. But they also have fostered a perception of her as a lightweight. As Schieffer pointed out in the Face the Nation interview on Sunday, a Politifact analysis of 23 of her statements found only one was true. Six were half or barely true; nine were false; and seven were branded “pants on fire.’’ Bachmann denied that she has mislead people. But it’s noteworthy that her spot-on criticism of Obama’s changing position on raising the debt ceiling was the one she reiterated in the June 13 nationally televised debate.

Wallace also asked her about her “history of questionable statements, some would say gaffes” in his interview. Then he put it bluntly: “Are you a flake?’’ Bachmann retorted, “Well I think that would be insulting, to say something like that, because I'm a serious person.’’

A minor backlash ensued, leading Wallace to post an apology in an online video.

 “I messed up, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect,’’ he said.  “I simply was trying to put an issue that’s out there directly to her because some people do dismiss her as a flake.’’

Yes, they do. Apology aside, Wallace undoubtedly hit on Bachmann’s biggest liability in seeking her party’s nomination to the White House.

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