Todd Domke

Gaffes, guts, and glory

Bachmann’s pluck renders errors mostly irrelevant

(Brian Taylor for The Boston Globe)
By Todd Domke
August 12, 2011

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Third in a series of scenarios on how GOP presidential candidates could win the nomination

IT’S EIGHT months from now. Michele Bachmann has won the South Carolina primary.

“We’re on a roll,’’ says her campaign manager to the staff. “But, to keep rolling, we need to fully understand what’s working for us. First, how did we win Iowa? Sure, we had great grass-roots organization . . . but the catalyst was media.’’

He clicks video of an MSNBC show with liberal talk show hosts Al Sharpton, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews interviewing Representative Bachmann.

“Remember that?’’ the manager asks, grinning. “People thought we were nuts to agree to that inquisition. Actually, we insisted on having all three liberals do the interview. We wanted Republicans to see her as Daniella in the lion’s den. And that’s why we made this TV spot. . .’’

Viewing it, staffers laugh at how the MSNBC footage was edited for comedic effect. The hosts now talk over each other, sounding angry and aggressive: “Your right-wing religious mentality’’ “extremist Tea Party know-nothings’’ “your intolerance, fear-mongering and name-calling’’. . . Michele is smiling and calm: “I believe in the Constitution. I believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’’ Tagline: “Bachmann. She can’t be bullied. She can’t be bought.’’

The manager continues. “And how did we win an impressive second-place in New Hampshire? Again, media.’’ He shows news footage of the candidate’s husband, Marcus, in a coffee shop. Asked about criticism of his wife, his eyes mist up.

The manager freezes the image. “You recall how Hillary Clinton got a little teary and won the New Hampshire primary. That wouldn’t work again for a candidate. But, for a spouse?’’

He unfreezes the video. Marcus starts sobbing. “News coverage shifted from the Romney-Huntsman feud to the issue of whether husbands should be sensitive and supportive. It was an Oprah opera.’’ Staffers laugh.

“How did we win South Carolina? Again, it was a media moment.’’ He shows debate footage, with Michele turning to GOP rivals and saying, “Yes, we need separation of church and state. But, Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman, you’re not falling in the polls because you’re Mormon, but because you’re mushy. We need strong leadership, and I have a titanium spine. It’s time to man up and woman up!’’

The manager continues. “Now what? Pundits say Michele is like Barry Goldwater, who won nomination in 1964, but lost big to Lyndon Johnson. Well, yes, Republicans want a true believer. But there’s an enormous difference - Barack Obama is no LBJ. However, Michele does have a Goldwater problem: she can say things that backfire. . .’’

He plays a video clip. Staffers wince as they view their candidate’s gaffes about history, and confusing John Wayne, the actor, with John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer.

“But I have good news: We’ve hired a special consultant to coach her.’’

In a hotel room. . . Mr. and Mrs. Bachmann sit down with a man who looks a little like James Carville, the political operative. He’s bald, bespectacled, thin and intense.

“I am a ghost consultant,’’ he says. “I specialize in gaffe-prevention. I’m a degaffeinator.’’

“So, where do we begin?’’ asks Michele.

He stares at her, which makes her uncomfortable. Then he studies her discomfort.

“Well, sir, what’s your advice?’’ she asks.

“Ahah!’’ he says. “You spoke because you felt awkward. That’s the wrong instinct. Never say anything when you’re feeling awkward. My motto: ‘Better silent than sorry.’ ’’

She starts to talk, but just nods.

“We’ll start with verbal exercises,’’ he says. “You’ll learn how to evade no-win questions, how to be quotable without being hyperbolic, and when to say ‘I don’t know’. . .’’

Hours later. . . The consultant gets up to leave. “My final words of warning: Don’t let the media turn you into Charlie Sheen.’’

Michele looks uncertain. “Uh, I think you mean Charlie Chan.’’

He sighs. “We’d better schedule another session.’’

Todd Domke is a Boston-area Republican political analyst, public relations strategist, and author.