07.19.11

Bachmann’s Political Headache

A report that the 2012 candidate suffers from crippling migraines creates a special challenge for a woman. Jill Lawrence and Casey Schwartz on the fallout—and whether Bachmann should release her medical records.

When is a migraine more than a migraine? When the person afflicted is a leading presidential candidate who also happens to be a woman.

The same day she moved into first place for the first time in a national poll of Republican primary voters, Michele Bachmann faced a potentially game-changing story about her personal health. Coincidence? Who knows, but with success comes heightened scrutiny. She’s in the big leagues now.

In its explosive story, The Daily Caller described Bachmann’s migraines as weekly and incapacitating, requiring heavy medication and at least three hospitalizations. Google, finding certain keywords in the piece, helpfully placed an “ask the gynecologist” banner ad right above the headline—reinforcing the fact that migraines are usually a female problem. It was later replaced by “ask the neurologist”—not much better, especially since The Caller reported that the migraines were triggered by “stress, a busy schedule and anything going badly for Bachmann.” An unnamed adviser is quoted as saying, “When she gets ’em, frankly, she can’t function at all.”

Also not helpful to the cause of women in politics: Bachmann’s reported suggestion to staff that high heels caused the headaches.

The Minnesota congresswoman issued a statement that pointedly did not address her hospitalizations or the possible role of stress. She said her migraines are “easily controlled with medication” and suggested that the proof lies in her busy life as a wife, mother, lawyer, Minnesota state senator, congresswoman, and—now—a White House candidate constantly on the road. “I have prescription medication that I take whenever symptoms arise, and they keep the migraines under control. Let me be abundantly clear—my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines and will not affect my ability to serve as commander in chief,” Bachmann said.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, called Bachmann’s response a good start but only that. “We have learned that we need transparency—medical records, information about the medication, and preferably access to her health provider,” he said. “Being president is too important for a ‘trust me.’”

The questions raised about Bachmann’s migraines have potentially major political implications. If her supporters are unsure about her health, some may look at other candidates. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential rival for Bachmann’s evangelical base, has another reason to get into the race.

Beyond that, this could be more general setback for women among voters just getting comfortable with the idea of a woman running for president. Migraines affect three times as many women as men. The gynecology ad accompanying The Daily Caller story further reinforces the idea that migraines are a “women’s ailment,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “Whether the average person on the street would consider this a women’s issue or not, it just became one.”

Mark Green, a migraine expert at Mount Sinai in New York City, said migraine sufferers are disabled while they’re “in the throes of an attack.” But in most cases, he said, migraines can be greatly helped or even controlled with the right treatment. Bachmann probably has plenty of company in politics, said Andrew Charles, director of the headache research and treatment program at UCLA medical school. “It’s quite likely that many office holders have had migraines and it just wasn’t discussed,” he said. “It’s something that happens and can be dealt with.”

Lots of things were not discussed in the past, from Calvin Coolidge’s depression and Woodrow Wilson’s stroke to FDR’s polio and JFK’s Addison’s disease. Complete transparency is still elusive, but the media and the public now insist on being in the loop to an ever greater extent.

Not helpful to the cause of women in politics: Bachmann’s reported suggestion to staff that high heels caused the headaches.

Democrat Bill Bradley set off a mini-furor when he had an episode of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, during the 2000 primary season. John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, released records on his skin cancers and the injuries he received when he was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Democrat Paul Tsongas assured Americans he was cancer-free in 1992 and beat Bill Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. But his lymphoma recurred and, had he won the nomination and the election, he would have died in office.

Bachmann’s migraines never came up in her campaigns for the House or the state Senate, according to Jacobs. But the consensus is they are fair game in a presidential campaign. The job has become so global, so demanding, that it requires not simply good health but also enormous stamina.

Just in the last few months, President Obama has dealt with, and no doubt fielded after-hours calls on, the Special Forces raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, drone strikes in Pakistan, European financial crises, and the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident, not to mention the U.S. government facing default. “These things are not 9 to 5,” Jacobs said. “The world today requires a president who can serve 24/7. You can’t have a president who is going offline for a couple of days” in the hospital.

Migraines are a chronic condition with no cure. Bachmann’s not going to be able to make them go away by getting rid of her uncomfortable high heels; both doctors ruled that out as a cause of her headaches. So we can assume Bachmann will be experiencing migraines throughout the campaign, and that’s an opportunity for her to show voters that she can function without interruption. “The challenge for her is going to be to demonstrate that it does not affect her ability to lead,” Lawless said.

In the end, Bachmann may need to release more medical information and grant access to her doctors. If her condition is anywhere close to as serious as depicted by her former aides, her campaign will be in trouble. For now the greater challenge seems to stem from the unusually rapid turnover rate in Bachmann’s congressional staff. She has a slew of former aides, and some of them, apparently, have lots to say.