Michele Bachmann’s Epic Collapse

Executive summary: She's a kook unfit to serve as dog catcher, much less leader of the free world.

An inordinately long Politico piece examines “Michele Bachmann’s hard fall.” My executive summary: She’s a kook unfit to serve as dog catcher, much less leader of the free world.

The piece opens with a reminder:

Four months ago, Michele Bachmann seemed poised for a banner December.

She’d just won the Ames Straw Poll — vanquishing her Minnesota rival, Tim Pawlenty, in the process — and was getting accustomed to life in the top tier of 2012 candidates.

But most of us understood at the time that the Ames Straw Poll is meaningless and that it was inconceivable that Bachmann would win the nomination. Then again, I didn’t see her flaming out to the point that she wouldn’t be competitive in her native Iowa’s caucuses. If recent polling is any indication, she’ll finish near the bottom of the field. Indeed, the piece notes that “She faces uncertain reelection prospects in her own House seat at the end of the presidential primary season.”

That’s what you get for flying too close to the sun, I guess.

So, what happened? Well, Bachmann’s true colors were revealed.

Instead, her campaign slowly disintegrated. There was a bitter split with a coterie of top advisers, a slew of campaign trail missteps and claims of unfair treatment. Contributions dried up and the candidate herself never quite developed a message. Once Rick Perry stole her thunder after her Ames Straw Poll win, she retreated to a familiar comfort zone of Fox News and conservative radio appearances.

“I think to a certain extent it was a smoke and mirrors operation,” said her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins. “The debates kept her in it and the end of the day that’s not the substance [of a campaign]…We got her to a point where people looked at her [but], just as other candidates found out, once the spotlight goes on you, you better be prepared.”

That should read “one of her former campaign managers.” She’s on at least number three now. Regardless, it has been an amateur operation from the get-go:

The congresswoman also suffered a key problem that many first-time presidential contenders fall prey to — she refused to take the counsel of the people she brought on to tell her how to handle a presidential campaign.

“I think for her, she is her own best adviser,” said one former Bachmann staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And so I think anything that comes from the outside is not just filtered in the normal sense but doesn’t weigh the same as how she weighs her instincts on things. Her instincts outweigh, generally speaking, a fair amount of counsel. Having lost only a school board election and having won ever since, I think she feels like she has great political instincts. But it’s just that we’re at a different level at this point. She’s not an easy person in terms of taking counsel.”

Yes, first-time candidates tend to lack a strong organization and to have outsized confidence in their own political instincts. But Bachmann went well beyond the norm here and for no good reason. She was a virtual unknown who had won nothing larger than a House district; she hadn’t earned the enormous ego that comes with being a governor or senator.

But just like that, Perry stepped all over any momentum she gained by jumping into the race the same day as the straw poll. The next night, presented with an opportunity to get the better of her new rival from the South at a Blawk Hawk County GOP fundraising dinner, Bachmann refused to come out of her campaign bus and share the spotlight with him, despite entreaties from most of her advisers.

The news coverage of the event was not favorable. According to many Iowa politicos, it was the turning point for her campaign there. She seemed weak by comparison, and while she used the debates to soldier on, she has never reached the same heights again.

Not long after, Rollins and two members of the team he’d put together, David Polyansky and pollster Ed Goeas, parted ways with the team. For new campaign management, she turned to Keith Nahigian, a longtime advance man who’d worked with her campaign and with whom, as one former staffer put it, she felt as if she could heed her own counsel and instincts a bit more.

The split had been presaged, however, for weeks, thanks to a divide between the staffers and advisers on her campaign bus, and the national and Washington-based team. Her then-state chairman, Kent Sorenson — who is now a Paul backer — disliked her national advisers and the way they ran things and made that clear to her, sources said.

It was then that Bachmann decided to double down and continue to follow her political instincts, according to several sources familiar with the campaign — addressing the hard-right of the party with a string of Fox News appearances instead of broadening her message. She also failed to develop a cohesive message beyond beating up on ‘Obamacare’ and talking about the nation’s fiscal crisis.

Beyond the provincialism, though, there was the bizarre character revealed by the national spotlight.

And she repeatedly made claims on the campaign trail that she couldn’t back up — including the one where she recounted a mother telling her about a daughter developing “mental retardation” thanks to the HPV vaccination that Rick Perry had mandated in Texas for young girls. The medical community at large denounced the claim, and it added to a sense that she was unserious, and prone to making claims without having the facts first.

[…]

Bachmann herself developed a penchant for, as Rollins put it, seeing “sinister” motives in almost everything that happened along the way. She accused Newt Gingrich of “buying” tea party support in South Carolina. Sorenson was accused of leaving for a payoff. Her campaign has suggested sexism is part of the underlying problem — a fact that may be true, but it hasn’t seemed to help her by saying so publicly.

Conservative radio host Steve Deace, who is neutral in the race but who has described Michele Bachmann as the most consistent conservative in her record, expressed surprise at her past few weeks — noting that she’d accused Bob Vander Plaats of trying to get her to drop out (which he denied), accused Sorenson of being bought off (which he denied), a super PAC that had backed her switched to Mitt Romney, and she asserted that no pastors have asked her to get out of the race (though a prominent one said he did).

“She’s accused three people of lying, all of whom say what she says is not true…When she won the Ames Straw Poll, she had just spent the summer [hitting] House Speaker John Boehner for cutting deals with Obama on the debt ceiling,” said Deace, adding that instead of focusing on the payroll tax cut fight that the House GOP lost, Bachmann chose to talk about “all these sideshows, which make great copy for blogs but which don’t impact any voters. They don’t create new jobs.”

The beauty of our otherwise exhausting and frustrating presidential selection process is that it eventually reveals these flaws. In a short contest, it would be possible for a charismatic candidate to catch lightning in a bottle and win over the nominating electorate by virtue of some good commercials, a strong debate performance, or spouting some clever lines on “Hannity.” Over a grueling campaign that drags on for months, though, the candidates too stupid or crazy to serve are revealed.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    “…presidential selection process is that it eventually reveals these flaws.”

    She’s being saying wacky stuff for years. No need for a presidential selection. A single well done interview would have been enough.

  2. casimir says:

    good riddance. i’m suprised she’s gotten as far as this though.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Unfortunately for the good ol’ US of A she’s still gonna be a Congressperson.

  4. Fiona says:

    Over a grueling campaign that drags on for months, though, the candidates too stupid or crazy to serve are revealed.

    Well, at least that’s the hope and it does generally seem to work in practice. However, it didn’t spare us from GWB. And the desire for a not_Romney is still keeping a couple crazies within shooting distance of the nomination.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Hey Norm: I don’t think that’s a given – she is going to go into her congressional race broke and humiliated. Her constituents must have noticed she hasn’t set foot in Congress for months and it is now really obvious that she is certifiably mad.

  6. Kylopod says:

    And she repeatedly made claims on the campaign trail that she couldn’t back up — including the one where she recounted a mother telling her about a daughter developing “mental retardation” thanks to the HPV vaccination that Rick Perry had mandated in Texas for young girls.

    What really puzzled me about that episode was that she’s been saying stuff like that for years–that’s practically her modus operandi. Yet the right pounced on her for it, Limbaugh saying she had “jumped the shark.” So claiming that members of Congress should be investigated for anti-American views, or that ACORN runs the Census, or that Al Franken caused the Great Depression–those aren’t examples of “jumping the shark,” but saying that vaccines cause retardation is.

    My only guess as to the difference is that anti-vax stuff is primarily associated with the loony left, and so it made even wingnuts like Limbaugh uncomfortable. Bachmann could be crazy all she wants, just not crazy in that way. I don’t think she was ever a likely nominee, but the backlash against her from the hard-right probably had something to do with her HPV remark, even though the same crowd have no problem with equally absurd statements as long as those statements fit their ideology.

  7. Herb says:

    I just realized what’s she holding up in that picture. Embarrassing….

  8. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Is this where we can note Newsweek got it right with its infamous “crazy eyes” cover photo?

  9. mattb says:

    @Kylopod:
    Here’s my take… most of the pundits never did research on her. By that I mean that her crazier statements didn’t get widely distributed in the press. And since Bachmann — like Palin and others — gave such red meat quotes (which whole show segments could be built around) and pushed a muscular “conservative” agenda, they were embraced.

    Once the smarter talkers got to know a bit more about Bachmann, they realized they were backing a loon. I suspect that most of them feel the same way about Palin. But then the question became how to get off the crazy-train without having to admit that “I backed a loon.”

    The key difference between Bachmann and Palin is that the former is — at the mic — actually less disciplined than the latter (perhaps because, I suspect that Bachmann is more of a true believer at the end of the day). So, given enough time and exposure, she said enough stuff (like the Vaccine comment), that allowed talkers to suggest that she had “gone nuts” (versus having always been nuts).

    That gave them more than enough coverage to start to distance themselves from her without having to call their own question into judgement.

  10. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @mattb:

    That gave them more than enough coverage to start to distance themselves from her without having to call their own question into judgement.

    Exactly. It’s only after a “mistake” such as this when former supporters leave, because now they have a graceful way to get off the bus. It’s why Bush’s support tanked so badly following Hurricane Katrina.

  11. MBunge says:

    “The beauty of our otherwise exhausting and frustrating presidential selection process is that it eventually reveals these flaws.”

    That doesn’t mean anyone pays attention to them, however. If Romney is the nominee, he’s going to be beaten like a rented stepchild for being a member of the 1% and Romney did it by winning the genetic lottery, so it’s not even like he can defend himself for being a self-made man.

    If it turns out, when Romney finally has to release his tax returns, that’s he’s one of those multi-millionaires who pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, it’s hard not to see that as GAME OVER for the election.

    Mike

  12. Kylopod says:

    @MBunge: Well, to paraphrase Churchill, Romney is the weakest GOP candidate except for all the others.

  13. de stijl says:

    @Peter:

    She’s being saying wacky stuff for years. No need for a presidential selection. A single well done interview would have been enough.

    AFAIK, she never sat for an interview with a “serious” journalist. I believe she just went the safe Sharon Angle route and only went on Fox. That was her takeaway from Couric’s “What magazines and newspapers do you read?” gotcha question for Palin.

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @mattb: Almost none of our pundits do research, period. Never have I seen an intellectually lazier class than the American journalist.

  15. MBunge says:

    @Kylopod: “Well, to paraphrase Churchill, Romney is the weakest GOP candidate except for all the others.”

    Yeah, but nobody except the voters seems to pay attention to Romney’s weaknesses.

    Mike

  16. Jay Dubbs says:

    It should have been obvious to even the most committed that she was a goner when she had to announce at two different debates, “I am a serious candidiate.”

    There may be few hard and fast rules about Presidential politics, but if you have to say “I am a serious candidiate” then you aren’t a serious candidiate.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Yeah, but nobody except the voters seems to pay attention to Romney’s weaknesses.

    Probably the result of a conspiracy by the liberal media…

  18. Kylopod says:

    >Yeah, but nobody except the voters seems to pay attention to Romney’s weaknesses.

    But even with his weaknesses, he’s still a reasonably competent candidate. I feel pretty certain he’s not going to be doing any impulsive “stunts” like the ones that characterized McCain’s erratic 2008 campaign. He exudes coolness and discipline. For these reasons, I differ with many of my fellow liberals who I believe are way too smug about Obama’s reelection. I just don’t see it at all as a foregone conclusion. What if there’s a double-dip recession in 2012, as is very possible? You really think Obama would win under those circumstances? With a nutcase like Bachmann, probably, but to most voters Romney is about as close to the “generic Republican” as we’re going to see in this cycle, and while he’ll no doubt be harmed by the overall extremism of the party he’s pandering to, he still isn’t widely seen as a nut himself. In my experience, I’ve encountered several moderate/centrist types (including the OTB writers) who would sooner swallow arsenic than support candidates like Bachmann, Cain, or Newt, but would seriously consider voting for Romney over Obama. I think those people are making a big mistake–I think Romney will still be in the thralls of the hard-right if he’s elected, and will not govern remotely like the moderate he once was–but it’s a mistake a lot of voters are going to make. Of course he’ll be hurt by his Marie Antoinette moments, in a way that a candidate like Perry would not, but I simply don’t think that’s anything close to the most important factor in elections.

  19. mattb says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    I appreciate the snark, but (1) journalists != pundits and (2) while it’s almost as accepted to hate on journalists as it is to hate on politicians, let me suggest that — at least for newspapers and other forms of text based journalism — many journalists do hard work and work to get the facts right, but the very structure of modern journalism tends to discourage the type of in-depth investigations that many of us wish would take place.

  20. MBunge says:

    @Kylopod: “But even with his weaknesses, he’s still a reasonably competent candidate.”

    Just about anybody can look like a reasonably competent candidate if no one puts any pressure on them. I’m in Iowa and I can tell you, it is amazing to contrast the huge number of TV ads blasting Gingrich and Perry to the virtual absence of any anti-Romney spots. Bachman’s invocation of “Newt Romney” is basically the worst anyone’s done and she hasn’t had the money to run any sort of media campaign.

    Chris Matthews may get a boner because Romney “looks” like a President, but Mitt is as fragile as a glass hammer. He is terrible at connecting with normal people, has exactly the wrong background for this political and economic environment and advocates policies that are, at best, only maginally less destructive and insane than the rest of the GOP field. And, since Romney really isn’t a conservative, he’s had to employ the most demogagic and vacuous campaign rhetoric of the season to try and fool the GOP base that he’s one of them.

    Let’s remember that if Rick Perry doesn’t have some of the worst debate performances of the television era, it looked like he was going to blow Romney out of the water. And it’s taken millions and millions of dollars in negative ads and Republican pundits publicly knifing a Presidential candidate to an extent never before see to keep Newt Gingrich from doing the same thing.

    Or the put it another way, there seems to be an assumption that the GOP base isn’t flocking to Romney because there’s something wrong with them. Well, there is, but there’s nearly just as much wrong with Mitt.

    Mike

  21. ponce says:

    Executive summary: She’s a kook unfit to serve as dog catcher, much less leader of the free world.

    That could describe any of this year’s Republican candidates.

  22. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: It describes neither Romney, the likely nominee, nor Huntsman, my preferred choice of those running. Indeed, I’m not sure it even describes Gingrich or Perry, who I think unqualified for other reasons.

  23. ponce says:

    It describes neither Romney, the likely nominee

    You’d let Romney, who had a tantrum and strapped the family dog to the roof of his car and drove off, be your dog catcher?

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @ponce:

    You’d let Romney, who had a tantrum and strapped the family dog to the roof of his car and drove off, be your dog catcher?

    When did this happen?

  25. ponce says:
  26. Ben Wolf says:

    @mattb: No snark intended, I meant every word. For example I can think of perhaps six “journalists” (including bloggers) who don’t get the most fundamental aspects of our economy completely wrong every single time they write about the subject. My experience is that one is more likely than not to become

    more

    misinformed by listening to the press, because they so often reinforce incorrect information.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Of course he’ll be hurt by his Marie Antoinette moments…

    Oh, but Romney claims it is the President who has Marie Antoinette moments…I mean, really, what’s next, Rush Limbaugh calling Michael Moore “fat” or perhaps Ann Coulter calling Chris Matthews “shrill”…

  28. Kylopod says:

    @An Interested Party: I was deliberately alluding to that remark of his. He has a definite pot-calling-the-kettle-black quality, as when he attacked Newt as “not a reliable conservative.”