Is Bachmann a Flake, or Wallace a Pig?

You saw this coming – but perhaps not quite like this.  Fresh off her highly-praised performance in the most recent New Hampshire debate, and with the most recent Iowa poll showing her leading the pack, in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney among likely Republican caucus voters, Michele Bachmann has vaulted into the top tier of Republican candidates – at least in the mainstream media’s latest perceptions.  Never mind that a poll this early in the process is essentially meaningless.  Forget that Bachmann’s high reviews in the New Hampshire debate partly reflect the media’s low expectations for her performance.  As a perceived frontrunner, the media has determined that it is time to take the gloves off with the Bachmann candidacy.  Fox News host Chris Wallace was only too happy to oblige in today’s interview with Bachmann on his interview show.  In so doing, he may have inadvertently revealed a bigger obstacle to Bachmann’s chances of winning than her misstatements or conservative views. You can view the full video of the Wallace-Bachmann exchange here:

If you watched the video, you can see that Wallace focused largely on concerns – earmarks, gay marriage, the 10th amendment that, while certainly important, most voters will see as peripheral to the main issues driving this election: resuscitating the economy, creating jobs,  and dealing with terrorism.  To his credit, Wallace did ask some issued-based questions, most notably in pressing Bachmann on her support for Paul Ryan’s budget plan. But he also spent an inordinate amount of time discussing campaign strategy in the guise of candidate comparisons, and finished with a gratuitous, even insulting (and some might say gender-driven) shot at Bachmann’s temperament.   That final exchange is worth printing in full:.

“WALLACE: Finally, let’s talk about Michele Bachmann because — and you say — it’s interesting. You say that the people saw in the debate and saw you as a serious person. I don’t have to tell you that you have — the rap on you here in Washington is that you have a history of questionable statements, some would say gaffes, ranging from — talking about anti-America members of Congress — on this show — a couple of months ago, when you suggested that NATO airstrikes had killed up to 30,000 civilians.

Are you a flake?”

Excuse me?  Did he just ask a member of Congress whether she is a “flake”?  Amazingly, Bachmann held back from punching Wallace in the nose, and instead responded with great restraint:

“BACHMANN: Well, I think that would be insulting, to say something like that, because I’m a serious person.

WALLACE: But you understand when I say that, that that’s what the rap on you is?

BACHMANN: Well, I would say is that I am 55 years old. I’ve been married 33 years. I’m not only a lawyer, I have a post doctorate degree in federal tax law from William and Mary. I work in serious scholarship and work in the United States federal tax court.

My husband and I raised five kids. We’ve raised 23 foster children. We’ve applied ourselves to education reform. We started a charter school for at-risk kids.

I’ve also been a state senator and a member of United States Congress for five years. I’ve been very active in our business.

As a job creator, I understand job creation. But also I’ve been leading actively the movement in Washington, D.C., with those who are affiliated with fiscal reform.

WALLACE: Do you — do you — and I think it’s important to say that. But do you recognize that now that you’re in the spotlight, in a way that you weren’t before, that you have to be careful and not say what some regard as flaky things?”

One has to wonder – and I’m looking for reaction from you – whether Wallace would ever dare ask a male candidate, one with Bachmann’s experience and credentials, this question?   And if so, would the male candidate have responded by punching Wallace in the nose?   As it was, Bachmann showed remarkable poise in not taking the bait. But the exchange drives home one point, and raises a second.  First, part of the media vetting process will include the development of a candidate stereotype, based on simplified, often exaggerated readings of candidates’ comments and actions that, once established, will be very hard for the candidate to shake. Think of Palin the dumb beauty queen, or George W. Bush, the amiable frat boy, or John McCain, the tightly-wound ex-POW, or Bill Clinton, the womanizing bubba policy wonk.

But the Bachmann interview raises a deeper issue, one that I don’t think was fully addressed in 2008 because it was overshadowed by the debate regarding whether an African-American could win election: are women held to a different standard when it comes to running for the presidency?  Look again at Wallace’s last question to Bachmann – you would hardly know he’s talking to a woman who served six years in the Minnesota state senate and is in her third term in the House.  In the last election cycle she outraised every other House incumbent.  This follows on the heels of the Hillary-the-(rhymes-with-witch) stereotype that periodically cropped up during the 2008 campaign. (Obama famously noted that she was “likable enough” – a remark that some say galvanized women voters and cost him the New Hampshire primary) and, of course, the media-pummeling inflicted on Palin.  Don’t get me wrong. Bachmann deserves to be grilled, and held accountable for misstatements.  As Wallace somewhat gratuitously reminded Bachmann, she’s in the spotlight now.  But one has to wonder, particularly after the Palin media contretemps, whether the main stream media holds women up to a different, and perhaps more stringent standard?   I don’t pretend to have an answer, but it’s a question well worth asking.



  1. Are women held to a different standard when it comes to running for the presidency? Definitely not a simple answer to that question. My immediate reaction is yes. But when I think about it, I really don’t think it is a different or more stringent standard for women, but rather it just appears that way. Running for president is no easy task, and for good reason. If you can make it through campaigning through the primaries and the general election, chances are you at least somewhat qualified to run this country. You’ve been exposed to the public, you’ve been under media scrutiny for months, and you’ve been asked every question you could think of (and plenty you couldn’t have seen coming) on both the issues and the skeletons (or hopefully lack thereof) in your closet. The US’s election system, at least nowadays, is set up to weed out those who aren’t worthy to be president. Granted, the media does a lot of the weeding on its own (a lesson I learned from none other than Professor Dickinson), but presidential candidates are nonetheless subjected to a lot of pressure.

    So why do I think it only seems like women are held to a higher standard? Because in my opinion Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann haven’t been pushed any harder than Barack Obama, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. But in the United States, every boy is brought up and told that they are never, ever supposed to lay a hand on a woman. As an extension of that lesson, even the verbal badgering of female candidates seems like it’s something our parents would ground us for. The American people are still unable to see past gender stereotypes of protecting women. When men are asked tough questions, they should be able to stand up for themselves and fight back. When women are asked tough questions, it’s seen as mean. Simply, many believe that women shouldn’t have to experience the harsh environment of running for president, a belief that leaves those people thinking that women are inherently unqualified to hold such an office.

    Women aren’t held to a different standard than men. We just haven’t yet seen a woman (in my opinion) strong-willed enough to take politics like a man, or find another way to prove their merit as a presidential candidate.

    As a woman considering running for political office in the future, I truly don’t want to be seen as a female candidate when that day comes. I want to be seen as the best candidate, regardless of my gender. I’m still waiting for a female politician that can prove themselves. Perhaps the setup of the system is biased toward men, but I don’t see that as an entirely bad thing.

    Maybe Wallace went a little too far by asking Bachmann if she was a flake, but that comment is plain disrespectful, regardless of whether she is a man or a woman. Besides the fact that her repeated gaffes don’t make her a “flake” as much as they make her misinformed, which is a much bigger concern I have as she gets closer to the presidency.

    One of these days, a woman will be president, and that will be a historical moment for this country. However, we still want to make sure that we are absolutely certain that that woman is the right person for this country.

  2. Anna – Interesting. So, Wallace’s apology which came later that day was appropriate because his question was disrespectful – but he would have been equally disrespectful had he been talking to a man?

  3. I really like Anna’s long comment and agree with her broader point. Indeed, I think that by even treating Bachmann as a serious candidate, the media hasn’t treated her harshly enough considering her casual relationship with reality

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