Election 2008

Ron Edmonds/AP
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota

How to Ruin a Political Campaign: Bachmann’s ‘Anti-American’ Statements

October 23, 2008 12:43 PM
by Emily Coakley
Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose remarks about Obama’s “anti-American views” buoyed her opponent’s campaign, joins a long list of politicians punished for making unfortunate statements.

‘Hardball’ Appearance Causes Problems for Incumbent

In less than a week, a quiet Minnesota race has become one of the most talked about in the country, after the incumbent, Republican Michele Bachmann, made statements on the show “Hardball with Chris Matthews” suggesting that Barack Obama holds “anti-American” views.

Since Oct. 17, Bachmann’s opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, has raised $1.3 million and drawn many new volunteers, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Bachmann’s interview has turned the race into one of the country’s most intensely watched. It also unleashed an online backlash against Bachmann, who many local political observers assumed would easily win reelection,” said the paper.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has cancelled television ads for Bachmann that were supposed to start running next week, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. “A Republican source confirmed Wednesday that the NRCC is pulling its funding out of the Sixth District race,” the Star-Tribune said.

But David Wasserman, a political analyst, said that it’s not necessarily over for Bachmann, who has “one final path to victory: to portray her political opponents as East Coast elitists, including Chris Matthews, but also contributors to Tinklenberg’s campaign over the past 72 hours,” the Star-Tribune quoted him as saying.

Wasserman also doesn’t think the ad cancellation meant the GOP sees Bachmann as a lost cause.

Historical Context: Political foot-in-mouth disease

Candidates have a long history of jeopardizing or ending their campaigns with unfortunate statements. In the recent past, Va. Sen. George Allen’s loss to Jim Webb in 2006 was largely attributed to an incident in which Allen called a Webb campaign staffer who was filming him “Macaca,” which was interpreted as an ethnic slur.

Pennsylvania is a place where political gaffes seem to frequently occur. A Politically Uncorrected column in April quoted a 2006 Time magazine article: “Pennsylvania actually has a rich tradition of politicians and their handlers putting their foot in their mouths during a crucial moment of a political campaign.”

Politically Uncorrected, written by political analyst G. Terry Madonna, chronicled some of the Keystone State incidents, including that of Dick Thornburgh, a former governor. Thornburgh’s campaign manager called him, “the salvation of this sorry-ass state.” Pennsylvanians apparently disagreed, and he lost the race.

Calling Gov. Robert P. Casey a “red-necked Irishman” ensured defeat for Barbara Hafer, Madonna wrote.

Political observers of the 1976 presidential race marked the second televised debate as the “turning point” for Jimmy Carter, who would eventually win, according to CNN.

Specifically in that debate, Pres. Gerald Ford, in a follow up question about Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, said, “I don’t believe … that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”

Carter replied that he wanted Ford to convince Americans of Eastern European descent “that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.”

Sen. Trent Lott stepped down in 2002 from leading the U.S. Senate after remarks he made at the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s birthday party. Thurmond, who eventually accepted the Civil Rights movement, had run for president in 1948 and opposed integration, CNN reported.

At the party, Lott said Mississippi was one of the few states Thurmond won, and that, “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”

Today, the Internet has made things even more difficult for candidates who slip up when speaking. Campaigns routinely film their rivals at different appearances, according to MSNBC. YouTube is a convenient place for posting embarrassing videos.

Democratic consultant Jenny Backus told MSNBC: “In the olden days, this wasn’t an issue because if you said something that could be problematic, you just denied that you said it. These days, it’s too easy to have cold, hard proof.”

Related Topic: Campaign gaffes

Read more about famous gaffes presidential candidates and others have made through the years, including Howard Dean’s scream, former Vice President Dan Quayle’s questionable spelling and the meaning of “Dukakis in the tank.”

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