After receiving just 5% of the vote (last place among the major contenders) in last night’s Iowa caucus, Michele Bachmann has called it quits.
“And so last night, the people of Iowa spoke, with a very clear voice,” said Bachmann. “And so I have decided to stand aside. And I believe that if we are going to repeal Obamacare, turn our country around, and take back our country, we must do so united. And I believe that we must rally behind the person that our country, and our party, and our people, select to be that standard-bearer.”
In no way is this news unexpected. Bachmann’s been floundering for a while, but still, I find myself a little melancholy this morning. The only woman in the race is gone and I wonder if she ever stood a chance.
Like seemingly all contestants (with the exception of the probable winner, Romney) in this years GOP field, Bachmann had her moment of glory. A straw poll in the same state that sealed her Presidential doom, invigorated her campaign just a few months ago. In politics, five months is a lifetime, and for Bachmann, it was more than long enough for her to gaffe her way out of the race.
It’s possible that this was truly a post-feminist race. Bachmann had her moment of glory. Like Herman Cain and the fated Rick Perry, she blew it. It’s possible that she failed simply by tripping over her own tongue and by being a weak candidate, woman or not.
But perhaps Bachmann’s problem was deeper than simple flavor of the month burnout. Perhaps Bachmann would still be standing if she wasn’t a woman. Perhaps Bachmann’s problem was that her campaign was run by men.
No matter the political party, campaigns have been run in essentially the same way for decades, if not centuries. Candidates spend a lot of time on the road, speaking to crowds small and large, repeating the same rhetoric ad nauseam. Some politicians, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, are especially skilled at instilling a sense of intimacy, even in large crowds. Barack Obama’s strength is in energizing crowds, even without such a sense of intimacy. Great politicians, like great rock stars, give a fresh feel to even the oldest of lyrics.
Bachmann is not a great politician, but neither are any of the other Republican contenders. While not a horrible speaker, Bachmann’s nasal, monotonous voice left people grateful that she, unlike her sister Republican, Sarah Palin, was fairly concise. But I don’t believe it was her voice that was her downfall. I believe it was her inability to truly connect to an audience.
Less than a century ago, women couldn’t vote let alone run for President. When running for office, politicians only needed to appeal to men. The how-to-campaign book was written then and it’s changed very little. It took almost 90 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment which gave women a political voice, before a woman ran for the highest office in the land.
2008 was a contentious year for women. There was such a strong divide between the Hillary Clinton camp and the Barack Obama camp, that it seemed miraculous that the Democratic party reconciled in time for the general election. I was always in the Obama camp, and I took a lot of heat from women, especially those who were older, and had participated in the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Clinton was a pioneer and should be recognized as such, but in my opinion, she never spoke to me.
The Republican party tried to take advantage of the Democratic gender divide by running Sarah Palin as the VP candidate. The strategy failed miserably. It turns out that the mere existence of a vagina is not enough to attract women voters. Even more than Clinton, Palin didn’t speak to me.
Remember how, during the GW Bush administration, a common meme was that he was a guy people wanted to have a beer with? I never quite understood that. To me, he was an overgrown frat boy, exactly the opposite of someone I’d like to have a beer with, but I got the sentiment. On a certain level, people bonded with Bush.
Human beings have the need to bond, but for women, it is arguably a biological imperative. Without exception, the women I like best, and the ones I respect the most, are those with whom I’ve bonded. I bond with people by finding common ground. In friendships, it can be outdoor activities, literary faves, really just about anything. In politics, I’ll vote for the candidate who best addresses my priorities, but I’ll work harder for a candidate, man or woman, with whom I bond. In 2008, I responded to Obama’s ability to captivate a crowd. I recognized that he wasn’t as liberal as I’d like, but he was (and still is) a vast improvement over the previous eight years. Perhaps more importantly, I saw a significant commonality with Obama…he and I were both abandoned by our fathers. Even for those who didn’t share that history, Obama’s personification of the American dream was captivating, relatable, and yes, bond-worthy.
Despite the failure of Bachmann, Palin and Clinton, women’s quest for the White House hasn’t ended. Maybe it’s time that women hire women to run their campaigns. We are used to the Romney/Gingrich style of campaigning, where we feel that they are talking at us, not to us. Women have a unique voice, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of using it.
Bachmann attempted to appeal to women by playing the role of the midwestern housewife; one who happens to have an extremely powerful career. That’s fine, but she seems to be living a life of denial…denial of her husband’s sexuality, denial of the gains in women’s rights that have allowed her to achieve what she has achieved, denial that there is a difference between raising a child and fostering one for a week or two. There was little to relate to in Bachmann, the Presidential candidate, and her poll numbers with women showed it.
Great politicians, like Bill Clinton, are wonderful at listening. Right or wrong, women are expected to be better listeners. Maybe it’s time for women to end the dog whistle kind of campaign speeches and speak at a more intimate level. Reagan was the master of the (usually fictional) anecdote. He had the ability to sound warm and nice, while ratcheting hate.
Here is the transcript to Bachmann’s campaign announcement speech. While I disagree with almost every point in the speech, on its face it’s not a bad speech, but it is basically a game of Mad Libs. The outline was there from thousands of other speeches and thousand of other candidates before her. All she had to do was fill in the details. The speech was also filled with the word “I.” Voters, especially women, want to be included. Bachmann’s personal story is compelling, but she left out a feeling of inclusiveness, of empathy.
I have watched Bachmann as she moves through crowds. While I do find her politics repulsive, she strikes me as warm when face to face. Why didn’t her warmth translate in speeches?
This year’s Republican base has proven they want divisiveness, they want to be told they are superior to pretty much everyone but the 20 some-odd percentage who are exactly like them. Bachmann didn’t have to drop the hate filled rhetoric from her campaigns, she only needed to make them sound nicer and more empathetic. There was perhaps nothing meaner, more divisive and more downright racist than Reagan’s famous ‘welfare queen’ anecdote, but by golly, he sure sounded like a nice guy while reciting it, and more importantly, he made his intended audience feel like they could relate to the story, that they, too, knew women who had ”eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000,” even though it’s likely that no one has ever known a woman like that because she never existed. But still, Reagan managed to convince the American people that the fictional welfare queen, and people like her were the cause of all the very real problems facing the country.
Women want to feel that we are being heard and there’s no better person to make us feel that way than a woman, but she will need to break the campaign mold and become a bit more Bill Clinton, a bit more Reagan, men who channeled their inner woman on the campaign stump.
Within the next decade or two, I predict that we will have a woman President. I hope she is a woman who will advance women’s rights instead of setting them back, but I also predict that that woman will break the mold, starting by surrounding herself by women and allowing herself to campaign as a proud and empathetic woman.