Monday, June 27, 2011

Going gaga for Bachmann: How media hype made an unelectable GOP candidate a top-tier contender

(Ed. note: This post focuses heavily on the GOP presidential debate that took place two weeks ago today, along with the post-debate media coverage. Nicholas wrote about it here and now turns his attention specifically to Michele Bachmann, who may very well have "won" the debate and who, since then, has been catapulted into big-time contender status. -- MJWS)

When standing with a full field of political goons and professional gaffers, and with the press corps salivating like rabid wolves on the sidelines, not looking like a dunce is akin to victory, and momentary sanity equates to electability.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) at the CNN GOP debate

And for that great feat, Michele Bachmann "stole the show," "grabbed the GOP nomination spotlight" and generally "dominated" the first legitimate debate between candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency.

It wasn't just the "objective" mainstream editors who wrote such eulogistic headlines; the left-leaning news media couldn't help showering the Minnesota congresswoman with praise for her performance, either:

-- The liberal Mother Jones magazine deemed her one of two "big winners," second only to the clear frontrunner Mitt Romney. The government-suckling platoon of anti-Republican rhetoricians over at NPR described her as "savvy," "disciplined," and both "polished and confident." The New York Times said she was "competent" and "knowledgeable."

-- Time magazine's senior political analyst, Mark Halperin, called Bachmann's debate performance "impressive" and "smooth" – and said that she appeared "polished, serene and in command." Halperin predicted that with her "energized ground game" she could have a "real shot" at the nomination, under the right circumstances, as she's surrounded herself with "a top-shelf team of veteran advisers" and has proven herself as a "formidable fundraiser" who likely will be able to afford the TV airtime necessary to compete on the national level.

-- The Washington Post described the debate as "a coming-out party" for Bachmann – "a 120-minute declaration that she is someone to be reckoned with in the race," and left-leaning WaPo columnist Ezra Klein said "[Bachmann's] candidacy has mostly been greeted as a longshot bid, but on the stage last night, she came across as one of the primary's clear heavyweights.

-- Jonathan Chait, The New Republic's "liberal hawk" senior editor, wrote prior to the debate that "the prospect of a more conservative candidate winning the nomination is very real, and the field for such a candidate is wide open." The two top-tier candidates, Romney and Huntsman, are "ideologically and religiously unacceptable to large segments of the party base," he said. "The candidate best positioned to win this constituency is Michelle Bachmann." 

-- And after the debate, Chait added: "The skepticism about Bachmann's prospects reflects an antiquated assumption that there's a natural ceiling within the GOP on the support base of a hard-core religious conservative. Yet both the movement and the party have changed in ways that make that less and less true." 

The list goes on, but the point has been made, so let us stop here and ask: What? Really? Who? How?

Support insanity at 

There are only two ways to interpret this phenomenon: either the mainstream and left-wing media outlets are collaborating in some sort of covert shadow campaign meant to hand Bachmann the GOP nomination by elevating her status and promulgating her less extreme characteristics to the masses as a best-case scenario, and, at the very least, to cause mass devastation for the moderate conservatives, such as Romney, Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty, who might actually have a chance of beating Obama in 2012; or the politics junkies who watched the debate were so dumb-founded by Bachmann's ability to finish sentences, articulate policy positions, and speak to a national audience without debauching details of our shared history, our Constitution, or basic economic principles, that they fell in love with the partisan windbag simply because she surpassed their expectations.

Not being much for conspiracies, I'm going with the latter.

Michael J.W. Stickings, the founder of this blog, may have put it best when he wrote that Bachmann "won" (his word and his emphasis) "mainly by showing that she can actually speak publicly without her head spinning 'round and vomit spewing from her mouth."

In other words, she was the quote-unquote "clear winner" (Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone) because she didn't answer the softball questions from CNN moderator John King with long-form conspiracy theories about Sharia law, the Chinese yen replacing the dollar, and abortion bunkers hidden underneath the White House; because she "kept her insanity bottled up" (ibid.); and because her head didn't explode when everyone expected it would. 

Now, the average reader may not see how not looking like a fool is synonymous with victory, and in the real world it is not. But in such a highly invasive and scrutinizing media culture, where politicians are trained to avoid the unmastered art of ad lib, to stick to the script and stay on point for fear their gaffe goes viral and their careers dance the southern spiral, there is rarely a political move that isn't endlessly brainstormed, vetted, analyzed, and filtered through the party leadership (or, in this case, the campaign staff) before it is presented to the public. Reporters and columnists are well aware of this fact, which is why live events such as the GOP debate have the potential to be so entertaining. Politicians may spend hours practicing the party's regurgitated talking points, but before a live audience and without a teleprompter there are no video edits, no delete buttons, no news release revisions.

And that is why Bachmann "won" the debate and has emerged as a serious contender. Whereas most politicians rarely stray from the comfort zones of their rehearsed soundbites and bland policy platforms, Bachmann is lucky to look human in front of a camera. Whereas most candidates were expected to stick to the issues between unrelenting assaults against all things Obama, Bachmann took a left turn from her regular radical route to work and appeared just as sane as the rest of the field. 

She stayed on script, as those brave individuals who suffered through the two hours of regurgitated conservative platitudes can attest, but most importantly she stuck to a safe, popular, and party-approved script that was not at all what the mainstream media expected to hear.

Granted, she said nothing new, exciting, or even memorable during the debate – other than perhaps her non-answer about whether she preferred Johnny Cash or Elvis. ("Both, both," she said). All of her responses were made up of the same pro-life, anti-taxes, anti-EPA, anti-regulation, anti-everything-Obama-has-enacted attack-dog rhetoric that every other candidate is spewing.

Her statement that "Obama is a one-term president" may have spurred resounding applause from the Republican audience in attendance, but it wasn't any more realistic than when Dick Cheney said it, or when Mitch McConnell said it, or when Reince Priebus said it. Her promise to repeal "Obamacare" may have titillated the taste buds of anti-socialist Kool-Aid drinkers, but it wasn't any less idealistic than when John Boehner promised it, when Eric Cantor promised it, or when any of the other six candidates on stage for the GOP debate promised it that very night.

Bachmann defied expectations not by proposing detailed economic policies or common sense debt reduction plans, but by not looking like the nuthouse escapee she usually presents to the world.

It wasn't intriguing or exciting or inspiring, but it was portrayed that way simply because the media was expecting a right-wing demagogue to come on stage and start speaking in tongues, and instead they saw a confident and seemingly normal human being expressing herself in complete sentences.

The reaction from the media would be no different if Charlie Sheen entered the race and kept his nostrils free of the Devil's dandruff long enough to make it to a commercial break. His ability to transition from his usual persona into a coherent talking head would so mangle the neurological connections of the mainstream media elite that they probably would consider him "a heavyweight" too.

And for that achievement Bachmann deserves an Emmy Award for best actress.

It doesn't mean she ought to president, however.

I'm not one to dish out advice to the right, but it would behoove Republicans, particularly those of the Tea Party persuasion, to keep in mind the obvious fact that primary races are not the same as general elections. One guarantees a victory and requires only partisan fearmongering and divisive threats about the future of our free republic if it continues to be ruled by a socialmarxommunist. The other guarantees only unfettered scrutiny, requires something that at least resembles a legislative record, and hinges on the ability to demonstrate widespread appeal to religiously apathetic voters, politically moderate middle class Americans, and socially phlegmatic independents, not just to the fringe base.

The conventional wisdom from the left, at least before the debate, was that Bachmann was a national joke, a socially extreme but politically powerless right-wing demagogue – a Bible-thumping anti-Darwinist whose base of supporters comprise the outnumbered but outspoken Tea Party populists, constitutional revolutionaries, birthers, truthers, and anti-government conspiracy theorists whose media time far outweighs their electoral influence – and that, because of the social, political, and cultural polarization she and her ilk represent, she would be an ideal GOP nominee, in the eyes of the left, to challenge President Obama in the 2012 election... because she would lose.

I don't believe the conventional wisdom has changed. But for the moment, the media's handling of Bachmann definitely has. Whereas before she was knocked around with heavyweight gloves (or brass knuckles, depending on the authenticity of the source's claims of objectivity), the post-election Bachmann so shocked the world with her split-personality theatrics that the mass media did what the mass media do best: they transformed their speechlessness into rapturous news reports full of complimentary prose and hyperbolized potential.

The fact that the majority of these reports were written without irony says something about the survival of "objectivity" in the industry. The fact that all of the reports either eloquently exculpated or outright ignored her disqualifying characteristics says something about the power of a "shock and awe" campaign.

The Tea Party voice was going to be heard this primary season even without Bachmann in the race. Now it will be felt, as the media have slipped on the kid gloves in their flattering reflections of her allegedly stellar debate performance.

Everyone knows that a thriving democracy depends on an informed electorate. Those who are tasked with educating the American people ought to remember the power of their words. And for their part, the American people ought to remember that just as sanity is not synonymous with victory, neither is hype synonymous with legitimacy. Like primaries and general elections, there is a stark difference between the two.

(Cross-posted at Muddy Politics.)

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