Bachmann wins Round 1 over migraines

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has been at the center of a storm since provocative questions about her migraines emerged two weeks ago. Now that the dust has settled, the question is … well, whether the dust actually has settled, or whether the dirt will emerge farther down the election trail.

It’s only been a few weeks since the original story about the migraines appeared, and the early verdict from political observers is that Bachmann didn’t just tread water, but might have come out stronger. 

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Former George W. Bush strategist and No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon said Bachmann moved “quickly and effectively to knock down the story.”

Professor and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics Larry Sabato agrees: “From across the spectrum, I heard the issue was a nonstarter. Love her or loathe her, what do migraines have to do with anything?”

That’s what many women asked. Migraines, which disproportionately affect females, reminded some of the ugliest stereotype in politics — that a woman can’t handle the stress of being president.

Kirsten Powers, a Fox News analyst and columnist for The Daily Beast, noted: “The way the migraines were talked about portrayed her as an unstable, pill-popping, hysterical female who can’t be trusted.” 


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In reality, Powers claimed, that’s exactly the opposite of the “energetic, incredibly stable and very clear-headed” woman Bachmann really is. The allegations, she argued, have only made the lawmaker sympathetic and thus strengthened her.

The timing of the story, which contained allegations that migraines incapacitated Bachmann, was always suspicious. 

In the week preceding the incendiary story, two polls in the critical state of Iowa showed her breaking out to a lead — the first she had ever held in the Hawkeye State. Her favorable rating with Republican voters was a stellar +65 percent. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, her next closest challenger, was at +48.

For months, Pawlenty had been the favorite to win the state, but now he trailed Bachmann by 19 percent in one poll and 16 percent in the other. Then, one week later, an anonymously sourced story appeared on the conservative Daily Caller website. A number of ex-staffers for Bachmann claimed she suffered from debilitating migraines that would “incapacitate” her for hours at a time. The anonymous staffers also said they were “terrified” that she wouldn’t be able to physically handle the job of being president, and that they were only making such claims for the good of the country.

Pawlenty said his staff was not behind the story.

“I checked with our staff,” he said in Iowa, according to media reports at the time. “They said they did not push the Bachmann story. In fact, they reminded me that the sources for the story were … apparently, her former staff.”

There were serious concerns raised about the article. For example, there was no word about what medication she used, there were few examples of how the migraines allegedly “incapacitated” her and all the sources who were so concerned about the country failed to provide their names.

Bachmann quickly put out a note from the House’s attending physician, vouching that she controlled flare-ups “well” and with two prescribed medications. The doctor finished: “You have not needed medical attention from me regarding your migraines with the use of the above mentioned commonly used therapies.”

Bachmann’s defenders have come from across the ideological divide. In the wake of the story, MSNBC’s liberal talk show host Ed Schultz told viewers: “I can say that my respect for [Bachmann] has gone through the roof in the last 24 hours.”

On ABC, liberal pundit Arianna Huffington also fought back against the article’s central allegations and gendered narrative. 

“The idea that somehow she cannot deal with the big-boy, man world of stress is so sexist,” she said. Huffington further mocked the story as “very Victorian” in its portrayal of Bachmann and women as being unusually incapacitated by migraines.

On “Morning Joe,” New York Magazine’s John Heilemann called the article a “calculated hit piece,” while host Mika Brzezinski said it was “ridiculous sexism at its worst.”

Clara Jeffery, co-editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, tweeted: “2 to 1 that Bachmann’s pill popping = advil and estrogen. It’s called menopause, people. Survived by powerful women all over the world.”

But despite all her defenders, some veteran political hands say Bachmann can’t put this headache to rest yet. McKinnon cautioned that he doesn’t believe the story is over.

“Too much is unknown from the general public about the issue of migraines and how sufferers deal with the illness,” he said. “I suspect that if Bachmann gets a lot more traction, this is something she will likely have to deal with in greater detail.”

Sabato, too, doesn’t think those writing Bachmann’s political obituary are done yet.

“If Bachmann has been hospitalized for migraines, as some anonymous staffers claim, then she needs to see some real migraine experts and get a better regimen of treatment.”

Powers is similarly careful, and almost downright bearish on whether the story will go away.

“The more successful she is, the worse it will get,” she said. 

But for now, there’s nearly universal consensus that in an ironic way, serious allegations that Bachmann lacked the ability to be president only made her seem more presidential.


Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.