Political Hay

The Borking of Michele Bachmann

Another conservative gets the Washington treatment.

By 4.4.13

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Shocker.

Having failed to end Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s congressional career at the polls, the left is now moving to do it the old-fashioned way: Bork Bachmann unto political death.

The problem?

This really is the old-fashioned way.

And any conservative even semi-awake recognizes the game instantly. In this case the game being played with the so-called Office of Congressional Ethics, the OCE.

This is what we now call “Borking.”

The method of choice of liberals when they are frustrated by the public’s attachment or potential attachment to a political figure on the Right.

From then-California Senator Richard Nixon’s 1952 “scandal” about a campaign fund to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 “ties” to German Nazis to 1988 allegations that Dan Quayle bought drugs to Sarah Palin’s 2008 episode over Alaskan state troopers, the story is the same. From charges designed to immolate any conservative from the late Robert Bork in 1987 (whence the Borking game took its name) to Clarence Thomas in 1991 or, in the last few days, Dr. Ben Carson, the game never changes when the objective is to destroy a prominent conservative. 

Now comes Michele Bachmann’s turn to be, as it were, Borked.

By now -- and it’s been sixty years since the phony attacks on Nixon -- the playbook is so overused that it is recognizable in all its disparate parts, which usually involve some combination of, although not necessarily all of, the following ingredients:

  • · The Charge
  • · The Leak
  • · The Disgruntled Employee
  • · Elitism
  • · Capitol Hill Insiders versus Capitol Hill Outsiders
  • · Ivy League versus State U
  • · The Rich Liberal versus the Self-Made Conservative
  • · The Liberal Double-Standard
  • · The Bureaucracy

The allegation?

Well, comes the charge, mumble rumble dumble… impropriety…rumble mumble dumble….ethics…puffle…kerfuffle….irregularities…harrumph…allegations…baaaaaa…investigation.

What does all this mumbo jumbo actually mean for Congresswoman Bachmann?

It means there is a move afoot to smear Michele Bachmann in the media -- with just the right touch of quasi-legal patina -- so that her career is finished. Over. Toast. Done forever and ever. Make her so politically radioactive that there is no other result possible. Which was precisely the objective with Nixon, Goldwater, Quayle, Palin, Bork, Thomas and now Carson.

So how to do this?

It’s the political equivalent of paint by numbers. If it were cooking, it would be a basic recipe.

Let’s work our way through the various story elements here one by one.

Beginning with this “exclusive” story on the OCE Bachmann investigation from The Daily Beast by one John Avlon.

What’s the first thing to notice?

That would be, of course, that there is an “Exclusive” story in The Daily Beast in the first place.

Notice this line buried deep in the story: 

OCE does not comment on ongoing investigations…

And notice these lines in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune story, the Star-Tribune in Bachmann’s home state. 

A senior attorney for the ethics office said he could not confirm or deny the Bachmann investigation. Among the board’s eight members -- half appointed by Democrats and half by Republicans -- is former Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel of Minnesota.

 Frenzel, contacted by the Star Tribune last week, said he could not comment.

So.

We learn that the “OCE does not comment on ongoing investigations,” that a “senior attorney” for the OCE said he couldn’t confirm or deny the story, and an OCE board member, himself a former Congressman, said he “could not comment.”

The obvious question. If those connected to OCE are obviously not allowed to discuss the investigation with anyone -- how does a story, an “Exclusive” -- make it to the Daily Beast in the first place?

Obviously, someone who has knowledge of the OCE and with an axe to grind against Michele Bachmann leaked the story. Or Daily Beast columnist John Avlon would not have his “Exclusive” in the first place.

Next question?

Remember that memorable Humphrey Bogart line from the film classic Casablanca? When one night out of the blue, the love of his life in Paris -- Ingrid Bergman -- whom Bogart’s Rick never got over -- walks into his Casablanca nightclub? Says a stricken Rick:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

One has to ask a version of the same question here.

Of all the journalists in all of America, why does John Avlon get an “Exclusive” on an OCE investigation into Michele Bachmann?

There is a paint-by-numbers answer.

Mr. Avlon, (a B.A. from Yale and MBA from Columbia) you see, is, ahhhh…..not exactly a Michele Bachmann fan (Bachmann has her B.A. from Winona State University, a J.D. from Oral Roberts University and an LL.M. in tax law from the William and Mary School of Law). In fact, it’s more than fair to say that Avlon can’t stand Bachmann and has made a mini-career out of his dislike for her.

A founding member of “No Labels” -- a group of liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans (Avlon was once an aide to New York’s Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani) who keep trying to convince the world that Left is Middle -- Mr. Avlon has made a specialty of his loathing for Bachmann’s conservatism.

Back in 2009 CNN, similarly engaged in the Left is Middle game, announced a new segment called Wingnuts of the Week. The segment was, but of course, based on Avlon’s book -- Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. The CNN version (as seen in this segment in which Avlon’s targets were Rush Limbaugh and ex-Bush FEMA director Michael Brown ) being an opportunity to declare this or that person on the right or left political scene to be a “Wingnut” -- i.e., a crazy. Avlon’s very first selection for the series? That’s right: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Next number on the paint-by-numbers trail? Here is Avlon on CNN on election night last year scalding Bachmann yet again as a “wing-nut.” Next, here is Avlon back in 2010 ranking what he calls "the most polarizing, deranged -- and dangerous -- wingnuts” of the year. Putting Bachmann at the top of his list. And here is Avlon in 2011 fretting about the “Bachmannization” of Minnesota.

Perhaps best of all was this jewel from Avlon on Bachmann:

Bachmann holds the distinction of having a higher percentage of statements analyzed by PolitiFact determined to be outright lies—or “Pants on Fire”—than any other politician, according to a survey by The Daily Beast.

The real distinction here is that Avlon, in his latest smear job, doesn’t get around to noting this fact about so-called “PolitiFact”:

The University of Minnesota…. Humphrey School of Public Affairs study last year 2011 found that PolitiFact rated Republicans false at a rate of three to one over Democrats, and more recently a George Mason University study from… June through September found that PolitiFact rated Republicans false at a rate of two to one.

Which is to say, PolitiFact has been repeatedly accused of bias in assessing their so-called “facts.” One of the more hilarious outings of PolitiFact was when it claimed the “Lie of the Year” in 2012 was this: 

It was a lie told in the critical state of Ohio in the final days of a close campaign -- that Jeep was moving its U.S. production to China. It originated with a conservative blogger, who twisted an accurate news story into a falsehood. Then it picked up steam when the Drudge Report ran with it. Even though Jeep's parent company gave a quick and clear denial, Mitt Romney repeated it and his campaign turned it into a TV ad.

And they stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.

The problem? As noted in the Weekly Standard in January of this year, after the election Reuters reported that, lo and behold, yes indeed, Jeep announced it would indeed be producing cars in China. Which is to say, PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” -- turned out to be true.

Any word of this controversy over PolitiFact’s bias as Avlon casually slides in the “fact” that  

Bachmann holds the distinction of having a higher percentage of statements analyzed by PolitiFact determined to be outright lies—or “Pants on Fire”—than any other politician, according to a survey by The Daily Beast.

Of course not. Why bother with all the facts when the target is Michele Bachman?

And so on. And on and on. The paint by numbers politics of personal destruction.

Thus the “gin joint” question gets answered. Of all the journalists in all America, why would a leak from the OCE… a leak forbidden, mind you, which is why all those “we can’t comment” lines above… make its way to John Avlon?

Answer? Whomever it is on the inside who wants to get Michele Bachmann knew that John Avlon hated her too -- on CNN, in the Daily Beast, and wherever else he goes to tell his tales.

Thus, Steps 2 and 3 in the “How to Get Somebody in Washington” paint-by-numbers playbook.

But what of Step 1? The Charge? Where is this coming from?

Here another standard fare of the game comes into play: The Disgruntled Employee.

Multiple news accounts, including Avlon’s, focus on ex-Bachmann aide Peter Waldron, among others. A number of those accounts of Waldron, some in the real time of the 2012 GOP primary cycle, are irresistibly drawn to this -- shall we say colorful? --  tale of what might be called  “Peter Waldron Does Uganda.” In which we find out from the Atlantic that Waldron spent 37 days in prison in Uganda arrested for possessing assault rifles and charged with terrorism -- not to mention being tortured. Before being rescued by…yes…a call from President George W. Bush. The story of Waldron’s Uganda episode is a movie trailer (found hereThe Ultimate Price: The Peter E. Waldron Story) although apparently not yet a movie.

In Avlon’s account Waldron is “embroiled in his own fight with his former boss, involving his allegations of pay-to-play politics and improper payments by the campaign.” The Star-Tribune ran a January story that begins:

WASHINGTON -- A top adviser in Michele Bachmann's 2012 White House bid has filed a complaint with federal election officials alleging campaign finance violations involving her presidential campaign and the independent political action committee she leads.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaint was filed Tuesday by Peter Waldron, a widely known evangelist enlisted by the Bachmann campaign for outreach to Christian conservatives. The filing follows his allegations last week that the Bachmann campaign has withheld payments to staffers who refused to sign confidentiality agreements.

Where to begin?

Contrary to the impression being given by the Star-Tribune and Avlon and Bachmann’s opponents, complaints filed against candidates with the Federal Election Commission (the FEC) are somewhere south of multiple dimes a dozen. They are the political equivalent of a parking ticket.

Bachmann is so far from alone in being targeted by an FEC complaint that the implication that she is accused of some serious wrongdoing is a joke. She joins a not so exclusive crowd of FEC complaint targets that includes -- wait for it -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney and, suffice to say, an ocean liner of others over the years. Which is to say, this particular political weapon is or has been used against the sitting President of the United States, the ex-Secretary of State, the current Secretary of State, and the last two Republican nominees for President, one of whom is not only the sitting senior U.S. Senator from Arizona but the co-author of the much publicized campaign “reform” -- the McCain-Feingold Act.

Big headlines in liberal papers? Moves to impeachment the president for FEC violations? Shame Hillary Clinton out of public life for good? Demand John Kerry’s resignation? Or John McCain’s? To send Mitt to the slammer? Are these FEC complaints Big News for Mr. No Labels John Avlon and all these other media types left breathless that the words “Bachmann” and “FEC complaint” are mentioned in the same gasp? 

Is Avlon writing of Obama -- the man who was tight with the likes of the anti-Semitic Jeremiah Wright, with the latter claiming to have been offered money for his silence from an Obama intimate -- 

Now the prospect of a House Ethics Committee investigation into Obama’s presidential campaign adds an additional indignity to the self-inflicted disasters of his political career. Demagoguery eventually brings dishonor. 

Nah. Are you kidding?

But why? Why isn’t Bachmann treated like Obama, Clinton, Kerry, McCain, and Romney?

Answer: Because none of the above is a conservative woman. 

And what of this business with Peter Waldron, the “disgruntled employee” as described in the Star-Tribune.

The “disgruntled employee” is a particular Washington favorite. Who on the target’s staff will kiss the cheek? And what do they get in return? Self-satisfaction? A fat book contract? A promise of something legal from a potential investigator/prosecutor?

There’s an endless list of motives here, and famous names sometimes attached. This is what made John Dean an author and a jail bird both -- telling on President Nixon and colleagues. It’s what made George Stephanopoulos a rich author for kissing and telling on President Clinton. Not long ago an ex-aide to former Governor Sarah Palin was out there peddling a tell-all book for money. And there was McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt and others peddling behind the scenes stories for the book-turned-movie, Game Change

Into the Bachmann saga floats the name of the aforementioned Peter Waldron, who is quoted as saying to Avlon:

A lot of hearts were broken, a lot of lives were hurt by the behavior of the senior staff of the Bachmann campaign…

Catch that phrase? That “a lot of lives were hurt by the behavior of the senior staff of the Bachmann campaign…”?

Oh gee.

Let’s be blunt here. And I speak as someone who has served staff time in political campaigns for all levels of the federal government.

Politics, as the famous old saying of Mr. Dooley goes, is not bean bag. There isn’t a political campaign where there aren’t personality clashes, egos, bruised feelings, angry words and all manner of other less-then-the-best human behavior. As Harry Truman used to say -- if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

Last year there was a period when the press was filled with some version of this story in Politico. The news: there was turmoil in the Obama campaign. Staff problems. Upset. Anger.

And that was the winning campaign.

On the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1980 --which he won -- Ronald Reagan fired his campaign manager and several senior aides. The McCain-Palin campaign was riven with problems between vice-presidential nominee Palin and various staffers.

One can talk chapter and verse on both recent politics and campaigns in the long ago of American history -- both the successes as well as the failures in both major parties -- and find example after example of, to borrow from Waldron, “a lot of lives were hurt by the behavior of the senior staff of the (fill-in-the-blank) campaign.”

In Waldron’s case, he too has been out there in all manner of campaigns. He should have had some not inconsiderable idea of this fact-of-life in the world political before signing up with Bachmann.

Alas in today’s world there are all too many people who believe a campaign in which someone else is the candidate, not to mention in Bachmann’s case, a someone else with a crystal clear sense of the issues and her views on those issues -- is about something else. Like that staffer’s feelings, rejected strategies or bruised or even ignored ego when dealing with other more senior staffers.

Who knows whether that is what drives Waldron. While his Uganda tale cultivates publicity and mystery, his purpose in so publicly going after the boss who, however it ended, gave him an opportunity is his mystery and his business.

But to view Waldron’s various anti-Bachmann moves or those of others involved since the end of the Bachmann campaign as some sort of signal of fatal flaw in Bachmann or a reason for voters -- who just re-elected her -- to end her public career is as bizarre as it is typical of the old Washington game.

In fact, the irony here is that the Bachmann OCE episode is beginning to draw needed attention to the conduct of the OCE itself. Here, and here, lawyers for various members of Congress from both parties who, like Bachmann, have been confronted with ethics charges, have banded together to call for reform of what they all see as a flawed process. Reports Roll Call:

A bipartisan group of attorneys who represent lawmakers in ethics proceedings said in a letter to the independent Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday that its recent rules changes rolled back important protections for their clients and that there should have been public input.

“We were surprised to learn that the Board has amended its rules without providing any opportunity for notice or comment,” the letter said. “A close review of the revised rules shows that these changes are at odds with the resolution that established and governs the office.”

In other words, what we have here in even the smallest of bureaucracies -- and this one was created only in 2008 -- is the typical realization that one more bureaucracy has been brought to life and it is already veering out of control.

The idea, for example, is that the OCE serves as a sort of “Grand Jury.” But clearly, it doesn’t. Grand juries are supposed to operate in secret. With John Avlon -- or anyone else -- insisting they are in on what goes on behind closed doors, clearly the system isn’t secret. Allowing targets -- Michele Bachmann in this case -- to be smeared relentlessly by political game players.

Allowing them to accomplish their objective.

That objective? An effective coup d’état on lawmakers unpopular with their political enemies.

And make no mistake.

What’s going on with the campaign to Bork Michele Bachmann -- to whip up a campaign to so damage her reputation for no other reason than sheer hatred or vindictiveness or who knows what -- is the reappearance of that old Washington favorite:

The politics of personal destruction.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.