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All over America, newspapers and magazines are reporting on Tim Pawlenty's criticism of his rival for the GOP nomination, Michele Bachmann. "Her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent," he said Sunday on Meet the Press. I suppose a campaign barb is newsworthy. But the bigger story here is the fact that Bachmann, who is rising in the Iowa polls, does in fact have a resume that's absurdly thin for someone seeking the White House. Ponder its shortcomings: she has no foreign policy experience, no executive experience, has never sponsored or co-sponsored a bill that became law, has never chaired a committee or subcommittee, and cannot even claim notable success outside the public sector like Mitt Romney.
Why this doesn't bother her supporters? They're choosing the person who'll preside over the Armed Forces, negotiate with foreign leaders, manage the bureaucracy, shepherd legislation through Congress, execute the nation's laws, and otherwise fulfill the many obligations of the presidency.
What makes them think she's qualified?
Surely the media is a big part of the answer. I don't mean the way that it covers Bachmann, so much as the way it covers all politics. Watching cable news, or listening to talk radio, or reading Politico, you'd think that the qualities most important to a politician's success are charisma, an ability to win news cycles, adeptness at formulating sound bytes, and success zinging rivals. In comparison, ability to do the job is seldom discussed. As Mark Halperin once put it:
MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns. I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage.In many ways, Bachmann is exceptionally qualified to run a good campaign. She is telegenic, charismatic, manages to be quick-witted at times, is wily in her attacks and counterattacks, raises a lot of money, and has mastered the dog-whistle. She rose to prominence by adeptly leveraging media appearances. That she did so despite having accomplished nothing of significance in public life is impressive. But it doesn't make her qualified to be president. She is manifestly unqualified to be president, as Republicans would quickly point out were someone with her resume running as a Democrat.
Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has "what it takes" to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win. For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world. But now I think I was wrong.
In fact, the GOP argued four years ago that Barack Obama was too inexperienced for the Oval Office. By their lights, they've been vindicated: his performance is almost universally panned within the party. Is the partisan mind so powerful that they're now prepared to elevate someone based on the strength of her TV interviews and floor speeches? "She talks like a litigating attorney, and her speeches, op-eds, and interviews are littered with references to books and articles," Matthew Continetti writes in his profile of Bachmann. He ought to be aware that other times, her remarks betray an inability to formulate sound arguments so extreme that it's laughable:
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He is among the many people who can tell you why Bachmann has a chance to win the nomination. Can anyone offer a persuasive argument that she should win it? The silence is deafening.
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