Michele Bachmann spoke about the importance of family values in Washington on Monday. The candidate currently occupying what was once her space in the Republican presidential primary has been accused of conduct you could call inconsistent with family values -- allegedly sexually harassing multiple women, one of whom was scheduled to come forward Monday afternoon.
In a speech about family values, the only woman in the GOP field doesn't bring up the personal values of a certain scandal-ridden rival
An obvious opening, you might think -- even the most mild reference would be seized upon as a new development in the scandal enveloping Herman Cain. But Bachmann didn't get anywhere near the subject, and even seemed to back away from an earlier vague allusion to it.
"While this election season has been full of surprises, I can assure there will be no policy surprises with me," she said -- seeming to exclude personal surprises with the addition of the word "policy."
Eclipsed by other candidates and beset by campaign chaos, Bachmann now needs all the attention she can get. She's slipped to fourth in Iowa and sixth nationally according to recent polls. But she continues to carry on as if nothing has changed and didn't mention any of the other candidates by name in her Monday speech at the Family Research Council.
She noted that "some Republican candidates seem confused about what it means to be 100 percent pro-life," an apparent reference to Cain. She said, "It isn't heartless, it isn't cruel to cut these programs," which might have been directed at Rick Perry. She lamented that "too many Republicans" are merely "frugal socialists" compared to the "out-of-control socialist" in the White House. Romney, perhaps? All of them?
When a reporter asked who she meant by that last one, she smiled and said, "You see, that's part of the puzzle that you figure out." Politicians hate when reporters read between the lines of what they're saying, except when they demand it.
It's strange to see Bachmann being so skittish about attacking other candidates. In the run-up to the Ames straw poll in August, she effectively buried Tim Pawlenty with her brutal, direct salvos against him. She was a key part of the multi-candidate pile-on that torpedoed Perry's roll-out, memorably speaking of "innocent little 12-year-old girls ... forced to have a government injection," and proceeding to link the Gardasil vaccine to a charge of "crony capitalism."
This isn't about a media hungry for conflict between the candidates, the more brutal the better. It's about Bachmann's need to distinguish herself from her rivals in more than vague terms if she wants voters to consider her anew.
Bachmann's speech didn't go there, or really anywhere. Reading from a prepared text, she rushed through a series of points about history and the Constitution, touching on such hot-button topics as the space program and the U.N. charter. It was if she knew that the scattered, oblique attack lines would be picked up and isolated, and the rest was basically window dressing.
In a radio interview airing Monday, Bachmann reportedly was more explicit in her criticism, singling out Cain for being "inconsistent" on policy. But as the only woman in the field of candidates, and one who has made her status as wife an mother central to her appeal, she would seem to be uniquely situated to raise questions about Cain's alleged personal conduct. Plenty of Republicans -- women in particular -- have qualms about Cain's trustworthiness in the wake of the harassment revelations. Part of the reason Cain has so successfully framed the scandal as a battle between him and the media is that none of his rivals has sought to recast it as a question of character.
That includes Bachmann, apparently. Asked after the speech if she thought candidates' personal values ought also to be considered, she said, "Uh, that would be up to the voters, I guess, to decide. Sure."
Image credit: Reuters/Jim Young
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.