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Bachmann’s vaccine blunder is a trademark of her public life

After appearing to enhance her standing in the presidential race at the expense of frontrunner Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Poor Michele Bachmann appears to have done it to herself again by blurting out something that she couldn’t back up.

For a few minutes, in the immediate aftermath of Monday night’s debate, it appeared that she had enhanced her standing in the race for the GOP nomination at the expense of frontrunner Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But within minutes, by committing the same speak-first-think-later blunder she has made a trademark of her public life, Bachmann may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

You’ve probably heard or read the basics by now. It’s all about Perry’s 2007 executive order requiring all Texas schoolgirls to be vaccinated for a possible cause of cervical cancer, and Bachmann’s successful attack on him during the debate, followed within minutes by her reckless decision — if the word “decision” can be applied — to repeat on live TV that the vaccine has been known to cause mental retardation. That that would be very serious if true but there is no scientific evidence for it. To make that public statement based on something that had just been told to her by a total stranger was reckless.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
REUTERS/Scott Audette
Rep. Michele Bachmann

Long-time Bachmann watchers should not be too surprised. The fact that Bachmann may have gotten a “fact” wrong is nothing new, although she should still retract and apologize.

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That someone with such a tenuous respect for the basics of facticity (and who so seldom does retract or apologize) could be a first-tier candidate for the presidency raises bigger, more profound questions about the state of our democracy and the ability of some citizens to hear what they want to believe and believe what they want to hear.

Susan Perry put up an excellent overview of the kerfuffle Thursday morning featuring Minnesota bioethicists who have actually offered large cash prizes if anyone can prove the truth of what Bachmann said after the debate – that the vaccinations Perry mandated can cause mental retardation.

During the debate
Bachmann seemed to have landed three simultaneous blows against Perry’s record, his love of liberty and his possible venality. Here are the three:

1. By using an executive order, Perry showed an unhealthy rush to use governmental power, which is a big problem for a contemporary conservative competing for Tea Party support.  Perry has acknowledged that this was a mistake and that he should have gone through the Texas Legislature. In fact, when the matter did reach the Legislature, it quickly overruled Perry and canceled the mandate.

2. Here’s the subtler, mostly overlooked, brilliance behind Bachmann’s attack. Even if it had gone through the Legislature and been signed into law by Perry, such a law would be what Bachmann called “a violation of a liberty interest.” This may be one of those dog whistles that reach certain ears and not others. Bachmann and Perry and even the relatively moderate Mitt Romney have associated themselves with the Tentherist states-righter argument that the federal government has strictly limited powers. Romney has said the individual health-care mandate that he signed into law is Massachusetts is OK because it was done at a state level, but the same idea was wrong when done by Obama at a federal level. To the most extreme liberty-lovers, Bachmann’s “liberty interest” rhetoric suggests that the government at any level may not have the right to impose such a mandate against the right of parents to decide what injections their children will get. If so, that may make her even more of a small-governmentist than Perry.

3. Then lastly, by bringing up the potential billions of dollars in profit to the Merck drug company from the mandatory use of their vaccine (Merck had the only vaccine on the market at the time against the HPV virus), she introduced the subject of crony capitalism, which has been a rising theme in the scrubbing of the Perry record.

(Interestingly, in his indignant reply, Perry ignored Bachmann’s main point on crony capitalism, which was that Merck had hired Perry’s former chief of staff as its lobbyist, and focused on his claim that Merck had given him only $5,000 in campaign contribution. All the fact-checkers have found that number to be much too low and, in addition, Perry seemed to imply that if he was for sale, he would cost a lot more than that.)

Pow pow pow. It’s best to resist pugilistic or militaristic metaphors in describing these great moments of intellectual debate, but given the particular moment and shape of the race, and the way Perry had seemed to displace Bachmann’s former status as the Tea Party favorite in the race, her triple play (that’s a baseball metaphor) seemed to have been a roundhouse punch, I mean a frontal assault, I mean a coup. You get the idea.

The full exchange over the vaccine is contained in this segment of the debate transcript.

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Post-debate statements
The immediate post-debate analysis declared Bachmann to be one of the big winners, mostly on the strength of that exchange.

But before she left the hall, Bachmann apparently heard from a total stranger who tearfully told her that her daughter had developed mental retardation as a reaction to the Merck vaccine. And Bachmann — who surely wishes she could have this moment back — repeated the mother’s claim on Fox News and, even the next morning, repeated it again on the “Today” show.

There is no scientific evidence that the vaccine has caused or could cause mental retardation. Bachmann, by the way, gave the mental retardation story as an example of one of the serious side effects of the drug.

My friend Ed Morrissey, a Twin Cities-based writer (for the national Hot Air group) and radio host, is a serious righty but one whom I have noticed has impressive respect for facticity. Wrote Morrissey:

“Huh? ‘Mental retardation’ typically takes place in a pre- or neo-natal event. Autism becomes apparent in the first couple of years of life — and primarily affects boys. Gardasil vaccinations take place among girls between 9-12 years of age. Even assuming that this anecdote is arguably true, it wouldn’t be either ‘mental retardation’ or autism, but brain damage…

“…The most charitable analysis that can be offered in this case for Bachmann is that she got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television.  It looks more like Bachmann sensed that she had won a point and wanted to go in for the kill, didn’t bother to check the facts, and didn’t care that she was stoking an anti-vaccination paranoid conspiracy theory, either.  Neither shines a particularly favorable light on Bachmann.”

By Tuesday afternoon, Bachmann was emphasizing, on Hannity, that she was not endorsing the alleged side effect. “I have no idea,” Bachmann said. “I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. I am not a physician. All I was doing was reporting what a woman told me last night at the debate.”

Rumor and fact
But that’s the whole problem. You’re running for a president, a job that requires you to know what you are talking about and be able to back it up. As a potential commander-in-chief, it’s important to know the difference between a rumor and a fact.

If you happen to have read the first installment of my occasional “Bachmann and Me” series, you would know that this tendency to repeat something alarming – on matters of potentially great importance – that she has heard but cannot back up is a pattern of long-standing. She is certainly not the only politician to sometimes get her facts wrong. But she is way at one end of the spectrum in terms of how often it happens and also in terms of her difficulty in retracting.

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Her own former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, has said that “the quicker she admits she made a mistake, the better.”

Saying that you were only repeating something you had heard from a stranger is not admitting a mistake. Here’s my suggestion, offered at no charge, for what Bachmann should say:

“After Monday’s debate a tearful mother came up to me and made some statements about what she believed may have been a side effect suffered by her daughter. I feel terrible for what that family is going through, but I shouldn’t have repeated publicly what that mom believes might be the cause of her daughter’s problems. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of it. And if I want Americans to seriously consider me as a candidate for president, I need to be more careful about facts and about saying things that I can back up.”