On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Iowa straw poll winner Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was asked to make the case that she has the "judgment and experience" to be president of the United States. Bachmann listed several qualifications -- her work as a tax attorney, small-business woman, state senator in Minnesota and member of Congress -- but the first thing she said was: "I have a lifetime of experience. I'm 55 years old. I've been married 33 years."
It's not unusual for Bachmann to cite the success of her marriage as one of the reasons voters should have confidence in her as a leader. Doing that has brought attention not only to her husband, Marcus Bachmann, but also to the role he has played in her career. Voters are still getting to know Michele Bachmann, and her own speeches have sometimes put her marriage center stage.
Which is why some observers -- many of them Democratic foes of Bachmann, but some Republicans as well -- are interested in something she said in 2006, during her first campaign to represent the 6th District of Minnesota in Congress. In a campaign appearance at the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Oct. 15, 2006, Bachmann discussed the importance of God's calling at critical moments in her life. She told the audience how she met Marcus Bachmann, how she earned a law degree at Oral Roberts University, and how she returned to law school for a second degree, this one in tax law.
"My husband said, 'Now you need to go and get a postdoctorate degree in tax law,'" Bachmann told the audience. "Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that? But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husband.' And so we moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I went to William and Mary Law School there. ... Never had a tax course in my background, never had a desire for it, but by faith, I was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband."
Bachmann went on to say that God later called her to run for the state Senate in Minnesota and, still later, for the U.S. Congress. After the church posted a video of her appearance on its website, a left-wing blogger picked it up and spread it on anti-Bachmann sites. If Bachmann's opponents were hoping it would be the end of her campaign, they were wrong; Bachmann won the race in 2006 and has been re-elected twice since.
But Bachmann's statement -- in public, on stage, microphone in hand, in the context of a political campaign -- raised a legitimate question. What role does her husband play in her performance in public office? With that in mind, at the Fox News-Washington Examiner debate in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11, I asked Bachmann whether, as president, she would be submissive to her husband.
The question prompted boos in the Republican-filled hall, and then cheers when Bachmann answered. "What submission means to us," she said, "if that's what your question is, it means respect."
In the days since the debate, a number of commentators have taken issue with the question, but it hasn't gone away. Bachmann faced it again on Sunday, when she appeared on "Meet the Press" fresh from her victory in the straw poll. Again, she explained that, to her, submission means respect.
Will that put an end to the question? Probably not. The point of the story she told in 2006 was that she made a major career decision that she didn't want to make because her husband told her to -- because she believed God was calling her through her husband. Some critics won't buy her explanation. As for her fans, many are offended that the question was asked in the first place.
Whatever the case, Bachmann's answer at the Ames debate was by far the most human moment of her appearance that night -- a far cry from her tough exchanges with former Minnesota Gov. (and now former candidate) Tim Pawlenty. At their best, debates tell us new things about candidates and allow us to learn more about aspects of their personalities we haven't seen before. Is there any doubt that moment in Ames did just that for Michele Bachmann?