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As Bachmann Enters 2012 Presidential Race the Sexism - and Comparisons to Palin - Begin

By June 27, 2011

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Michelle Bachmann

If she wins the Republican nomination, Rep. Michele Bachmann may singlehandedly turn the phrase "meeting your Waterloo" from a negative into a positive. Today Bachmann (R-Minnesota) officially entered the 2012 presidential race with a speech that -- quoting the Wall Street Journal -- "sounded like one Mr. Obama would have delivered during his first White House run." What's noteworthy is that she launched her campaign from Waterloo, Iowa, the town in which she was born, and that she did so from the steps of a former women's club.

As someone who's always interested in what strong women are up to -- even those I don't agree with politically -- I was pleased by Bachmann's thoughtful address which included insights into her background and what brought her to politics in the first place. (Little did I know beforehand that it had a great deal to do with a certain peanut farmer or that she started out as a Democrat.)

Bachmann's announcement came on the heels of a tough weekend in which Chris Wallace of Fox News asked her bluntly, "Are you a flake?" To her credit, her answer showed that she isn't. And she didn't respond with any winks, laughter, or coy remarks, but with an even tone and a short list of credentials to illustrate how serious she is.

A politically-inclined friend of mine, former About.com Guide to US Conservative Politics Justin Quinn, has this to say about Bachmann (and keep in mind that he wrote about a McCain-Palin ticket as early as June 2008, so he's got some powerful GOP mojo):

When Bachmann first hit the scene, many in the American media began sharpening their incisors in preparation for a feeding on fresh Republican meat. The idea among many of them was that Bachmann was simply going to be a replication of Sarah Palin. After all, Bachmann has made some controversial comments over the years and she's tied in heavily with the Tea Party.

Unfortunately for them, Bachmann has proven to be a much tougher punching bag.

Indeed she has, and she certainly isn't a Palin clone or wannabe. As of this writing, she's a serious threat to the other GOP candidates in Iowa as the WSJ blog Washington Wire explains:

She enters the race with plenty of momentum after a Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend put her neck-and-neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the head of the Republican field. She was the first pick for 22% of likely Republican caucus-goers, right behind Mr. Romney with 23%.

The New York Times makes a beeline for that elephant in the room by bringing Palin into the Bachmann story:

While there are few comparisons between Ms. Bachmann and Ms. Palin, aside from the fact that they are both conservative women, her advisers said they have learned lessons from the rollout of Ms. Palin after she was selected to be Senator John McCain's running mate in 2008. Ms. Bachmann has surrounded herself with a team of veteran political consultants, including Ed Rollins and other alumni of the campaign of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who won the Iowa caucuses four years ago.

Although it's inevitable that the two women would be compared to each other, the fact that Rollins has already come out aiming for Palin is unfortunate in a campaign year in which the GOP should be celebrating the idea of two prominent women shooting for the top of their ticket.

In an interview with Politico earlier this month, Bachmann's head strategist already stooped to subterranean levels of gender bias, making the sort of statement we've never heard in reference to male presidential contenders.

Rollins' description of how voters will respond to the Bachmann-Palin contest sounds more like Miss America judges evaluating swimsuit-clad contestants right after the Q&A portion of the competition:

People are going to say, 'I gotta make a choice and go with the intelligent woman who's every bit as attractive.'

Really Ed? That's what people are going to say? What about "I gotta make a choice and go with the candidate whose values echo mine and who has concrete ideas about turning around the economy, reducing the influence of government, and returning to the core values of the Constitution"? That's what Bachmann has been promoting to her conservative supporters. Not her "attractive" face and figure.

Note to Ed Rollins: It's an election, not a beauty contest.

Unfortunately, the urge to be playful with gender (and ignore the guiding principles of platform) is all too easy to succumb to.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the strains of  Tom Petty's "An American Girl" closed out Bachmann's speech. Cute perhaps, but "cute" is not what a winning presidential campaign is about. I can only hope that the decision to use that song came from Rollins and not Bachmann herself. She seems better than that. Stronger, smarter, more self-aware and more interested in discussing her ideas than shopping for a new wardrobe.

But, for better or worse, the 2012 election cycle was preceded by the 2008 presidential campaign in which a pattern was set for how to deal with women in politics.

As bad as Hillary Clinton got, Sarah Palin perhaps got it even worse because she was younger, more attractive, and not unwilling to work that appeal to her advantage. It unfortunately has created a climate in which the occasional gaffe or misstatement gets a female presidential candidate accused of being a flake (a gendered term if ever there was one, since it's usually pinned only on women or flighty men who exhibit female characteristics.)

Chris Wallace can't call one of his own a flake as much as he may want to, so he goes after Bachmann with that label. But Bachmann isn't Palin, and she shouldn't have to put up with the messes Palin left in her wake.

And although Bachmann's advisors may say they've learned the lessons of Palin's campaign, Rollins should not be trying to take down another (possible) female candidate just to bolster his own "girl" (and I use that term intentionally because by referring to her as "the intelligent woman who's every bit as attractive" he's behaving in a paternalistic, condescending manner.) Did he ever make that sort of statement about the male candidates he's consulted with on campaign strategy?

It's a new election cycle, a new era and a new woman running for President. Stop setting up a Bachmann-Palin showdown and fanning the flames by comparing and contrasting the two and instigating a non-existent catfight. They're women politicians, not divas in the WWE. Let's show some respect please.

My thoughts are echoed by Justin Quinn, who writes:

It'll be interesting to see what the media has learned (if anything) about covering high-level women politicians. With Palin, there was a certain amount of naiveté that allowed her to be feasted upon by the media, and in many cases cast her as a victim. Bachmann won't have that. She's polished and those gender-oriented attacks won't hold as much water with her, because first and foremost she's a member of Congress, and secondly, she's got the political chops to take those swipes and capitalize on them.

Suffice it to say, I think she's going to be tough to beat.

Michele Bachmann photo © Steve Pope/Getty Images

Related article: You Can Go Home Again - Bachmann Announces 2012 Run from Waterloo, Iowa


June 29, 2011 at 8:20 am
(1) REgina says:

Thanks for taking a respectful approach to discussing a female candidate for president. As you note, like her or not, Bachmann should be accorded the respect that any presidential candidate – male or female – deserves.

June 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm
(2) LEUTH says:

I appreciate the balanced and clear-eyed presentation of your commentary. I strongly support your support of strong women, esp. regardless of whether philosophies jibe with your own. I was struck by your observations on how the subtlities of language usage can belie asserted intentions of the speaker. Having a language background, I was particularly interested in your description of “flake” as primarily pejorative to women or to men exhibiting “flighty” behavior often perceived as feminine in nature.
Thanks for your insightful observations and for these wonderful articles!

July 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm
(3) Kathleen says:

I’m a white, female baby boomer from the last years of the baby boom. I live in Illinois, which many believe to next door to the nation’s most racist state (Indiana).
Years ago I said that the prejudice against women in this country is so deep and strong that a black man would be elected president before a woman of any color got anywhere near the oval office.
I still think that any man has a better chance than any woman of winning the presidency. And, as a liberal, I have to say, I hope Ms. Bachman wins the Republican nomination and runs against president Obama;-)

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