It may not be clear who won the Wednesday night Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, but it is clear who lost and it was Michelle Bachmann. It may not be over for her yet, but she left the debate badly wounded and spiraling downward, ready to follow the path already forged by Tim Pawlenty a few weeks ago.
The Rise of Bachmann
Bachmann has had an amazing ride the last few months. Declaring her official candidacy the night of the New Hampshire presidential debate, she won it in part by being the new kid on the block, giving short quick answers, and simply holding her own compared to the other candidates. Her success, culminating in the Iowa Straw Poll victory a few weeks ago, was the product of several factors.
First, unlike the other candidates, she had a clear narrative that appealed to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Without Palin in the race, the Republican Party remade in the ideology and image of her was lacking a candidate that captured the excitement of the Tea Partiers. Neither Romney, Pawlenty, nor the other contenders captured that excitement and appealed to them. Bachmann did. Thus, with the Tea Party bloc representing about one-quarter to one-third of the party, and with these individuals being highly motivated and likely to attend to show up for a straw vote or a grass roots activity (much like they did in August, 2009 to oppose Obamacare), Bachmann had an advantage for the start in appealing to and motivating this crowd.
Second, Bachmann had a clear Iowa strategy, drawing upon her birth in Waterloo. It was this strategy that knocked Pawlenty out of the race because he tool had an Iowa game plan, but it failed. Bachmann’s social and economic conservatism also appealed uniquely to an Iowa crowd too.
Thus, put together these factors–a remade Republican Party, no Palin or other Tea Party candidate, Bachmann’s message, the Iowa strategy, and her ability to appeal to a large bloc of voters–and you get a straw poll victory.
However, Bachmann peaked in Iowa.
The roots of her demise were obvious even before Wednesday night. Look at the debate in Iowa before the straw poll. She tangled with Pawlenty and managed to look petty in it. She did not rise above the crowd as she did in the New Hampshire debate. Moreover, she failed to say anything new or significant, simply repeating one-lines she always had–railing against Obamacare and seeking to defend her pithy legislative record against charges by Pawlenty that her accomplishments were insubstantial. Pawlenty was right and when Bachmann stated that her record included introducing the Consumer Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act it was clear that no lightbulb over her head had gone on. It was beginning to flicker off.
Bachmann’s weaknesses have always been there but magnified in the last couple of weeks, coming into full view last night. Bachmann did not have much of a record of accomplishment. Moreover, she has zero qualifications when it comes to jobs and the economy and with unemployment at 9% plus, her inexperience was a liability waiting to happen. Moreover, Bachmann appealed to a bloc but needed to expand that appeal beyond a core group of supporters. She never did that. In fact,, she could not do that. Her rhetoric was always clear in how it appealed to one group of people. There was no way she could redo her message to appeal to a broader constituency. New Hampshirites are fiscally but not socially conservative. Her rhetoric would not fly there.
Moreover, her rhetoric in the last few weeks doomed her too. Comments about earthquakes and floods on D.C. representing the wrath of God did not play well. Moreover, her nativism and lack of gravity and depth on issues was apparent. Other candidates rolled out jobs programs and developed ideas on foreign policy, Bachmann simply repeated her same old lines. Staff increasingly had to manage and apologize for her. She was being handled because who she was, was not working.
Moreover, the new kid on the block status was wearing thin. Remember when Trump, Cain, and Giuliani had risen to the top of the polls, only to fade soon? Bachmann suffered the same fate. Simply, she became boring–the worst fate for a candidate–and she lost the buzz.
But had no other Tea party candidates emerged should could have run a long way with a bloc of 30% of the party. But something happened–Rick Perry.
The Perry Factor
Perry immediately cut into Bachmann’s bloc support. She was unable in the last weeks to stem the hemorrhage, and the same was true last night. So think about how Bachmann got squeezed. She failed to hold on to Tea Party bloc and at the same time failed to expand her base. She was doomed.
Wednesday’s night debate revealed how far she had fallen. She was marginalized. She had few questions directed to her, little camera time, and no one really attached her directly. When she did speak she repeated the banal one-liners she had used for weeks, revealing little growth or thought. She had no plan for the economy. Her responses were often incoherent and at least twice the moderators pointed out she had failed to answer the question and gave her another chance to answer. She failed on the second attempt too.
This was a big debate for Bachmann. She fell to third in the polls, she lost Ed Rollins and her campaign manager, and she needed to take on Perry and recapture momentum. She did nothing to reverse her decline. Now it is too soon to say it is over for her. The Iowa caucuses are months away. However, she is damaged now and may be in the downward swirl of money and support that Pawlenty faced a few weeks ago.
Final Thoughts: Perry, Romney, Huntsman, Gingrich, and Palin
Perry is the front runner and may run the course of the ups and downs of the new kid on the bloc syndrome. The most disturbing part of the debate for him was the discussion of the death penalty. In 2000 George Bush looked almost gleeful in describing his record of execution in Texas. Perry came close to this too. Worse, the crowd applauded when he stated how many he had killed. This issue may appeal to a Texas and conservative base but not to a broad swing voter in an America much less supportive of execution than in 2000. Bush talked of compassionate conservativism–there was no compassion in Perry’s eyes or words last night.
Romney and Huntsman were the voices of reason last night. Romney defended Social Security and talked of jobs. Huntsman admonished the GOP not to be the party opposing science–it cannot reject climate science and evolution.
Gingrich? Where was he. He had almost no camera time even though he had important things to say.
Finally, if I were Sarah Palin watching the debate last night I would conclude that it is time to run for president. She too could cut into the Perry base and pull the Tea Partiers over to her. She has an opening.