Michele Bachmann's 2012 Chances Are Not About 'Sex Appeal'

A Pawlenty aide's mention of Bachmann's "sex appeal" shows how many barriers women still face in politics.

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Michele Bachmann is a strikingly beautiful woman. Now, can we all just get over that and move on?

It seems not, unfortunately. Vin Weber, an adviser to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of Bachmann’s GOP primary rivals, assessed Bachmann’s strengths to The Hill newspaper by saying, "She's got hometown appeal, she's got ideological appeal, and, I hate to say it, but she's got a little sex appeal too."

[See a photo gallery of Michele Bachmann.]

To his credit, Weber apologized the day the story appeared, issuing this statement:

I made a mistake that was disrespectful to my friend Congresswoman Bachmann. I've been a Bachmann supporter in her congressional bids and I apologize. I was not speaking on behalf of Governor Pawlenty's campaign but nevertheless, it was inappropriate and I'm sorry.

All well and good, but the fact that Weber was even thinking about Bachmann in that context shows how many barriers women still face in the political arena. Certainly, women have made gains over the last few decades, in terms of numerical representation in elected office (and Republicans had a better record in congressional and statewide office candidacies than Democrats in the last election cycle). But political operatives and many in the media still find it difficult to evaluate a female candidate’s strength or weakness without focusing on her appearance. And even if the assessment is a flattering one—as it has been for Bachmann and former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin—the underlying message is deeply insulting: No matter what a woman accomplishes, or no matter what political or policy mistakes she might make, her true value is rooted in her attractiveness to men. [Vote now: Can Michele Bachmann win the 2012 GOP nomination?]

And while male candidates’ appearances are also now part of the political discourse, they are not discussed in the same belittling manner. Mitt Romney is often described as having classic good looks, but the judgment is generally in the context of describing Romney as someone who looks like a president. President Obama is a handsome man (except for that photo from his youth where he looks like he’s trying to look like Link from The Mod Squad; but I can’t judge; I wanted to be Julie from the same show). But Obama’s appearance is not used to diminish him; instead, he’s described as "charismatic."

There is much to write about Bachmann that has nothing to do with her "sex appeal." She’s confused Concord, N.H., with Concord, Mass., in her description of the Revolutionary War era. She has erroneously characterized the Founding Fathers as fighters against slavery. She embraced the "birther" movement, and now she’s insisting she will not vote for an increase in the debt ceiling, a stance worthy of examination all the way around. [See a slide show of 6 consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised.]

She’s also doing much better in the polls than most people expected. Notably, in New Hampshire, Bachmann was the only GOP candidate to make ground against Romney, the front-runner in the state. Bachmann clocked in at 12 percent in a recent University of New Hampshire survey. Pawlenty got just 3 percent. Since the poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percent, that means Pawlenty could technically be at zero in the polls. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP primary.]

Bachmann has serious challenges as a primary candidate, and would face more if she got the nomination. But it’s insulting—and a serious tactical error—to dismiss her as just another pretty face.