Did Sexism Do Michele Bachmann In?

She finished last in Iowa because she’s a perfect product of the Christian right, says Michelle Goldberg.

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Michele Bachmann is an extremist who spouts weird conspiracy theories, garbles history and foreign policy, and tells untruths with such conviction that she’s less a liar than a denizen of an alternative reality. She burns through staffers and appears to have a megalomaniacal sense of her own destiny. She built her career by demonizing gay people, and even as she touted her passion for liberty, she planned to use the presidency to intrude on the sex lives of American citizens.

None of this, though, can really explain her dismal showing in Iowa, a state she once seemed poised to win, nor the anti-climactic fizzling of her candidacy. After all, her faults are hardly unique in the Republican field. Ron Paul shares her fears that the dollar will be forsaken in favor of some cursed one-world currency. Bachmann may have wanted to close our nonexistent embassy in Iran, but unlike Herman Cain, she seemed to be aware of the broad outlines of Obama’s Libya policy before she denounced it. Newt Gingrich had similar personnel problems, and his grandiosity makes her look humble. Her gaffes, such as confusing John Wayne with John Wayne Gacy, hardly compare to Rick Perry’s verbal flailing. And for homophobic prurience, she has nothing on Rick Santorum.

Meanwhile, she was consistently well spoken in the debates, even if the things she said did not correlate with empirical reality. She never deviated from the base’s orthodoxy, and she matched Santorum in retail campaigning, visiting every one of Iowa’s counties. And yet she still came in last, unless one counts Jon Huntsman, who made no effort in Iowa at all.

It’s tempting, then, to think that part of what finally defeated Bachmann was sexism. There have been plenty of hints that some on the right were uncomfortable with the notion of a female president. “I’ve noticed that when her name is mentioned sometimes that there’s a lot of men that wouldn’t vote for a woman,” one Iowa county GOP chair told the Associated Press on Monday. Patricia Murphy also quoted Iowans who liked Bachmann but wanted a male candidate. One woman told her she’d initially been for Bachmann, “But then I just started thinking about being presidential and I don’t know that we’re ready for a woman for president.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that the Christian right’s patriarchs, many of whom explicitly preach female submission, felt the same way.

Thus even when she seemed to be surging, religious-right leaders started casting around for an alternative. They thought they had one in Perry, who quickly stole Bachmann’s momentum. But once his intellectual deficiencies became clear, Bachmann couldn’t get a second look. Her close congressional ally Steve King declined to endorse her. Politico reported that Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa Family Leader, asked her to drop out before endorsing Rick Santorum, who at the time was polling behind her. (Vander Plaats denied making such a request.) Ultimately, one of the few movement stalwarts to come out for Bachmann was Phyllis Schlafly, a crusading anti-feminist who nonetheless believes, given the example of her own life, that women can lead.

During the campaign, I asked a few influential Christian conservatives why Bachmann was never able to recapture her initial support. One cited Bachmann’s claim about the HPV vaccine causing mental retardation as proof that she wasn’t a serious candidate. Obviously, that is proof that she wasn’t a serious candidate, though it’s odd that he should have seen it that way, since the right has rarely been troubled by the spread of misinformation about reproductive health. One of Perry’s claims to fame, after all, is a Texas law that requires doctors performing abortions to give their patients a booklet claiming, falsely, that abortion can increase the risk of breast cancer.

In the end, the reason Bachmann was a frightening candidate was because she’s such a perfect product of the Christian right. As such, she believed in its doctrines about gender. She disavowed feminism, proclaimed the duty of wives to obey their husbands, and told Sean Hannity that her daughters aren’t allowed to ask boys out on dates, saying, “They have to wait for the boys to call.” Perhaps she thought if she championed such strictures passionately enough, they wouldn’t apply to her.