Now that Michele Bachmann is out on the stump and breaking upwards in most polls, it seems to be time to start putting her personal life through the media churn. So far, the result is mostly a litany of things you already knew, or could surmise, from her rather plainspoken Christian conservative beliefs. There's a healthy emphasis on the divisive -- and that's the rub, really. Most of what we're (re-)learning about Michele Bachmann is precisely the sort of thing both candidate and campaign don't mind being discussed. Moreover, there's plenty of muddle in the reporting, as the pieces, to varying degrees, reach for a judgment-free tone.
Let's begin with today's Washington Post, which has an article up today titled "Michele Bachmann's husband shares her strong conservative values." Those values? Well, they primarily involve extreme antipathy for members of the LGBT community. The article leads with the quote from Marcus Bachmann that's getting such wide play of late, in which he refers to homosexuals as "'barbarians' who 'need to be educated, need to be disciplined.'" The couple, it is reported, share a "common abhorrence of homosexuality."
So, got that? The Bachmanns oppose gay rights, and as the Post relates, "Bachmann & Associates, the Christian counseling center he runs, practiced 'reparative therapy,' a method of converting homosexuals to heterosexuality often called 'praying away the gay.'" (There are persistent rumors in the ether that Marcus Bachmann may have some personal experience in such "reparative therapy," a matter that's basically too seedy for reporters to touch, though when the Post reporter makes note of the fact that Bachmann's husband "has acted as her media planner, traveling assistant and even personal shopper," I instinctively know to say, "I see what you did there.)
At any rate, we've established that the Bachmanns are averse to the rights and needs of the LGBT community. But soon, we get into territory that seems less firm:
These days, as Michele Bachmann burns up the campaign trail, attracting big crowds, oodles of media attention and skyrocketing poll numbers, her husband is a constant presence at her side. He is visibly engaged in the campaign, riding the bus and mingling with reporters as team Bachmann hammers its conservative, small-government message. But with a new same-sex marriage law in New York suddenly making homosexuality a topic for national discussion again, the Bachmanns have been surprisingly quiet on what has been a signature issue throughout their careers. "I am running for the presidency of the United States," Michele Bachmann said repeatedly last month to questions about whether she thinks homosexuality is a choice. "I am not running to be anyone's judge."
This is something of a change.
Is it? I distinctly recall that Bachmann's only problem with New York's same-sex marriage law is that it means she has to reconcile her extreme "tentherism" with her extreme dislike of the gay community. Here's how she has squared that circle: she has said that she will not "interfere" with New York's right to enact their own laws. But, she will continue to push for a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. That's precisely how she plans to "interfere" with the New York law. She said as much during her Fox News Sunday appearance, and at the New Hampshire debate.
Here's another part of the Post piece that I can see pundits making hay with:
Dr. Bachmann's influence on his wife is an article of faith within the family.
"He is her godly husband," said Peter Bachmann, Dr. Bachmann's oldest brother, who lives on the family dairy farm across the eastern border in Wisconsin. "The husband is to be the head of the wife, according to God." It is a philosophy that Michele Bachmann echoed to congregants of the the Living Word Christian Center in 2006, when she stated that she pursued her degree in tax law only because her husband had told her to. "The Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands," she said.
Oh, so, with Michele Bachmann, you potentially get a "submissive" wife in the Oval Office, doing the First Gentleman's bidding, right? I think that Bachmann's record as an agitator in Congress suggests otherwise. Bachmann's really comfortable being her own woman. She gets by in the House's "boy's club" just fine. When she wanted to issue a response to the State Of The Union address that would steal away from her party's official response, she asked for neither permission nor forgiveness. If Bachmann's been spending her career doing her husband's bidding rather than her own, it's not remarkably apparent. What we know of Bachmann is that she says what she wants and has not become known as a flip-flopper, like Mitt Romney, or a chronic groveller, like Tim Pawlenty.
Real Clear Politics, in an article going over her time in law school, provides what's probably the definitive portrait of Bachmann. According to classmate Jeremy Londoff:
"Here's what impressed me," he said. "She would give these presentations in a way that made it seem like she was never nervous."
He continued, "When she would stand up, you'd hardly ever see her flinch. I think that's helped her even now. She never got rattled; she never got upset. People always thought about what she said. She was so calm and cool and collected. She respected her professors and teachers, and they respected her."
There's a sort of underlying tension I see in the way the media is currently approaching Bachmann. She's a serious candidate at the moment, and it seems as if reporters are just coming to terms with the fact that all this time, she's had some game. At the same time, there's this "list of quirks" that comes with Bachmann -- her antipathy to gay people, her Christian fundamentalism, the fact that she went a little hog-wild providing foster care for children, her former life as a Jimmy Carter-supporting Democrat, a compendium of batty or divisive statements -- that reporters seem to think will serve as disqualifiers.
They won't. These are the aspects of Bachmann that both endure and endear her to conservative voters across the country. That hasn't sunk in with campaign trail reporters, it seems, but it should. Bachmann's story, so far, is that she's the candidate with high name recognition and high positive intensity:
Tell a voter about that time Bachmann "ran screaming from a bathroom at a constituent forum, claiming that a lesbian had attempted to keep her there against her will," and the response will either be, "Oh, yes, I am still not going to vote for that person I never intended to vote for," or, "Why is the media always picking on Michele Bachmann?" Write an article about how she and her husband have a marriage founded in Christian fundamentalism and on a mutual dislike of homosexuals, and Ed Rollins is going to take that article and stuff it into the mailboxes of Iowans.
None of this bothers Bachmann, either. She was called a "flake" on Fox News Sunday and she wrung an apology from a prostrate Chris Wallace out of it.
There's interesting stuff to be said about Bachmann, such as her hypocrisy on earmarks and Medicaid, for example, or the fact that her husband's therapeutic practice may have violated a contractual obligation. As it happens, those matters are also more substantive. But they're also more complicated, and less sexy, so the "Michele Bachmann is a weirdo feedback loop" will probably spin on, the media will call this "thorough vetting," and the candidate will not mind it one bit.