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.