Maybe Bob Dole has more clout in the Republican Party than we think. He suggested on Sunday that the party put up a “closed for repairs” sign for the rest of the year. Then along comes Michele Bachmann declaring on Wednesday that she won’t seek reelection.
On the surface, Republicans will be happy that they won’t have to answer for her exquisitely inflammatory statements anymore. Democrats will be disappointed to lose a face that launched thousands of contributions their way. You might say her departure is a small repair for the GOP’s image.
In fact, Bachmannism is far from finished. The Minnesota right-winger deserves to be memorialized with an “ism” because she perfected a tactic well-suited to the current media environment: continually toss out outlandish, baseless charges, and, eventually, some of them will enter the mainstream media — if, at first, only in the form of “coverage” of what conservative radio shows, Web sites or Fox News are talking about.
You don’t have to bat 1.000 or even .350 in this game. Get just a handful of your accusations and strange takes on reality into the political bloodstream and you’ve won.
Bachmann’s method is now common currency. And here’s the beautiful thing: Even as the regular media does some of your work for you, you lambaste the very same media. This only creates more pressure on them to cover you.
“I fully anticipate the mainstream, liberal media to put a detrimental spin on my decision not to seek a fifth term,” she said in her eight-minute40-second video announcing her decision not to run. She practically invited reporters to do just that by insisting her decision did not stem from the danger she might losereelection or because of an investigation into the finances of her 2012 presidential campaign. Is citing her denials a form of “detrimental spin”?
Her video provided choice examples of the Bachmann method and the extent to which it is now being emulated by others. She denounced “this administration’s outrageous lack of action in Benghazi, Libya, and the subsequent political coverup, which resulted in the deaths of four honorable, dedicated public servants.”
Note the clever construction of that sentence. It implies that it’s the administration’s “political coverup” that led to the killings in Benghazi. It’s hard not to conclude that she’s saying those deaths were all about President Obama’s political needs.
“I’ve also called out this administration and the Treasury Department,” she added, “for allowing and perhaps even for encouraging partisan, selective enforcement against American citizens based upon their political beliefs that aren’t in line with those of the administration.”
At best, in the Bachmann formulation, Team Obama was “allowing” this political persecution to go on, which implies that the White House was fully informed of what was happening in that Cincinnati IRS office, for which there is no evidence. But she didn’t stop there: Again with no evidence, she alleged that the administration might be guilty of “perhaps even . . . encouraging” the harassment of its opponents.
But hey, it’s Obama, so you can suspect anything. After all, as Bachmann once said, “most Americans are wild about America, and they are very concerned to have a president who doesn’t share those values.”
My nomination for the ultimate in Bachmannism was her slander against the program encouraging citizens to serve the nation and each other. Opposing a bill to expand AmeriCorps, she warned that “there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums.” Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is just around the corner.
Bachmann’s retirement should foster some soul-searching about the nature of our political discourse and how easy it is for falsehood and innuendo to get treated as just one more element in the conversation — no more or less legitimate than any other.
This is the very sort of relativism (“my ‘truth’ is as good as your ‘truth’ ”) that sound conservatives condemn. It ends in nihilism.
Dole, one of those sound conservatives and a revered party war horse, wanted his party to shut down for a while so it could “spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.” Bachmannism substitutes accusations for ideas and paranoia for an agenda. Alas, there’s little reason to think it will leave the stage with her.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for Slate.