Saturday, July 23, 2011

Michele Bachmann’s resonating headache

In recent years Rep. Michele Bachmann has acquired a reputation of being a true loose cannon of the Republican Party. Despite her more recent flirtations with gravity and earnest discourse in recent months — and certainly since she declared her candidacy for the presidency in 2012 —Bachmann has a longer track record as a freewheeling political iconoclast willing to say just about anything.

Her comments during the 2008 presidential campaign and throughout the 32 months of the Obama presidency constitute a kind of blooper reel of revisionist history and bad manners. Most recently, of course, there was her, shall we say, unique take on quality of life for African American slaves compared to that for black Americans in the present day. And one can’t forget her ... uh, inspired reordering of facts concerning Paul Revere and the American Revolution.

She’s come to earn her reputation as a messianic gadfly of the right. Lately, though, some people on either side of the aisle have called her fitness for higher office into question because Bachmann requires prescription medication to cope with debilitating migraine headaches.

Bachmann, no doubt trying to get on top of the issue, after a Monday story in The Daily Caller, made a formal announcement about the problem on Tuesday, confirming something her staff, associates and friends have known was a fact of life for the Minnesota congresswoman for years.

Apparently, these aren’t light, transient episodes but really debilitating migraine headaches. Picking up on the Daily Caller story, Politico reported Wednesday that Bachmann suffered migraine attacks in March 2006, May 2010, July 2010 and October 2010.

“Within the Bachmann team, this was not a secret about her headaches and the problems and doors going closed. It could be anyone from an intern to a chief of staff that could be aware of this,” one former top Bachmann staffer told Politico.

This staffer told Politico that it was not uncommon for Bachmann’s congressional office “to literally go dark when Bachmann had a migraine: ‘The congresswoman would go into her personal office, turn off the lights and close the door, sometimes for hours, waiting for the headache to pass,’ the staffer said.”

Politico reported Friday that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is denying, himself and through his staff, that his campaign had anything to do with leaking the information about Bachmann’s migraines.

"I checked with our staff," Pawlenty told reporters after a pickup hockey game in the Hawkeye State. "They said they did not push the Bachmann story. In fact they reminded me that the sources for the story were her, apparently, her former staff."

What’s inescapable in all this is the interpretation of the revelation: The response to Bachmann’s headaches are being framed almost as a character flaw or the seeds for a scandal; Pawlenty’s need to deny any involvement in leaking the information would be the same had she been caught up in some tawdry, compromising event.

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Make no mistake, it’s a problem for Bachmann and her young campaign. The excruciating pain as described by migraine sufferers who are ordinary people is said to be bad enough. Consider the prospect of Bachmann facing the relentless intensity of light and sound and movement that’s foundational to a presidential campaign … day after day after day.

It can’t be heartening to the Bachmann campaign that the attacks have seemingly accelerated — at least three in 2010 alone, according to Politico’s reporting — as Bachmann’s profile in the national spotlight has increased.

But management is possible; she’s done this for years now, and the attacks haven’t stopped her rise in political stature and influence in the least. And ironically enough, in the perverse calculus of populist politics, Bachmann’s migraines bestow a kind of humanizing advantage for a campaign that can use one right about now. This may be something like Michele Bachmann’s Mormon issue, but it’s one that people can understand. Lots of people. She’s not going through this alone, you know.

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There are about 30 million migraine sufferers in the United States, according to the federal Office on Women’s Health. Seventy-five percent of them are women.

Medically, that’s a challenge. Politically, it could be an opportunity — mostly one for Bachmann to prove to the broad cross-section of the American people that, specifics of political philosophy aside, a migraine sufferer can function and thrive in American society, regardless of the cerebral agony that’s never far enough away. She said as much on Tuesday.

Never mind the voters predisposed to support her politically; at a purely human level, that grim determination, that dogged intention to Carry On is something people can generally relate to, and maybe a powerful call to action to the millions who know exactly what she’s going through.

So anyone in the current crop of Republican presidential candidates possibly tempted to dogwhistle the Bachmann migraine issue into their campaign statements and press releases might want to think again. Everything has unintended consequences, nothing more so than politics. Bachmann’s personal problem may resonate with the American public in ways they never expected.

Image credits: Bachmann top: Still from CBS News video.

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