The visuals from Thursday’s Iowa debate presented a classic case of “which one of these is not like the other one.” With her slight frame, shimmering silver suit, and bare legs, Michele Bachmann embodies the notion that she’s not your (classically conservative) father’s presidential candidate. If the Tea Party constituency gets its way, she just might be the face of the Republican party’s future. But Bachmann’s sustained appeal befuddles many on the left who see her both as incompetent and prone to extremes in her rhetoric and policy stances.
I believe that that this photo hints at the keys to Bachmann’s recent successes.
First, let’s talk fashion—and, no, I’m not falling into the trap of critiquing women politicians’ fashion choices more than men’s. Like Ronald Reagan, Bachmann is keenly aware of the importance of visual appeal and fashion choices are an inevitable prop in any political performance. (In fact, Ryan Lizza’s recent profile in The New Yorker suggests that, for Bachmann, fashion is particularly crucial. He recounts the request made by Bachmann’s team to reporters following her on the campaign trail that they follow “one important rule” and “please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.”)
If clothes make the woman (or man), what does Bachmann’s debate outfit reveal about her campaign strategy?
The silver suit distinguished Bachmann not only from the current GOP pack (who donned the predictable [yawn] navy suits punctuated by bright blue ties) but also from former female presidential figures. Hillary Clinton’s dark pantsuits were designed to downplay difference and emphasize her toughness and experience. Elizabeth Dole preferred bright colors and feminine skirts that underscored her status as a “steel magnolia.” Too Midwestern to pull off the same thing, Bachmann’s choice resulted in pictures that were visually dramatic. Instead of being dwarfed by her much taller counterparts, she looked bold and decisive—exuding a steely presidential persona that was still appropriately feminine.
Bachmann’s strategic fashion choice also reveals a more substantive campaign strategy that is paying off—call it titanium temperance. Bachmann has proven capable of steeling herself against attacks launched by her critics, the media, and even fellow Republicans. Consider her response to Byron York’s now infamous question, “as president, would you be submissive to your husband?” The conservative crowd booed loudly, but Bachmann (without missing a beat) playfully replied, “thank you for your question, Byron.” She went on to give a measured answer about the mutual respect that she and her husband have built in their 33-year marriage. That moment typified Bachmann’s ability (in contrast to Sarah Palin) to—as grudgingly noted by the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus—respond to sexist attacks with “disarming humor.” Marcus rightly points out that Bachmann’s smoothness makes her the “un-Palin.”
Being “the good wife” is not normally a recipe for presidential success, but it has its advantages in the current political climate. For the Tea Party constituency, Bachmann is as exciting a figure as Obama was for many liberals in 2008—precisely because she embodies difference.
Bachmann enacts the paradox of a “surrendered wife” as commander-in-chief. By supporting her, conservatives get to be “family (values) friendly” feminists. They can “make history” without disrupting tradition. They can dominate government while deriding its value. Perhaps that’s why Bachmann continues to power on in the polls, despite what a flummoxed Pawlenty called her “record of misstating and making false statements.” As of Friday afternoon, ABC News was reporting that Bachmann was likely to do well in Saturday’s Iowa straw poll.
Regardless of the immediate results in Iowa, Bachmann will likely continue to display her titanium temperance and cheerfully kiss off her critics.
— Karrin Anderson
(photo: Charlie Neibergall / AP. caption: Republican presidential candidates pose for a photo before the start of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. Pictured from left to right: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; businessman Herman Cain; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.)