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Jane Ahlin, Published September 18 2011

Ahlin: Bachmann’s over-the-top tutti-frutti feeds ignorance

Let’s hear it for Michele Bachmann. Every time the pundits dismiss her presidential aspirations, she gets herself back into the spotlight. She may sound tutti-frutti to most of the country, but it’s passion fruit that somehow connects with that odd hybrid of libertarian/social conservatives called “tea partiers,” those extreme-right folks who currently control the Republican Party. If snarky laughter is part of the attention she gets, no problem: She is the focus, and she likes it that way.

After Bachmann’s over-the-top remarks a few weeks ago about God sticking the East Coast with an earthquake and a hurricane to remind Washington politicians that government spending is out of hand, Bachmann’s presidential ambitions were declared toast. (Well, there also had been those slips about Elvis, John Wayne and the difference between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but she shrugged those off.)

The point is, she wasn’t worried. Calling out Texas Gov. Rick Perry in last week’s debate between Republican contenders for his mandating that all sixth-grade Texas girls receive the human papillomavirus vaccine to protect them from cervical cancer later in life, she was back in the mix. In fact, she struck a traditional blow when she accused Perry of coziness – in the form of campaign contributions and staff – with the drug company that would benefit from selling the vaccine. (Note: The Texas Legislature reversed the mandate.) Not that it qualified as a tea party blow, of course. So Bachmann went on to say how terrible it was to force inoculation on little girls and that she’d talked to a mother whose daughter became “mentally retarded” because of the vaccine.

For most folks, that set off a cuckoo buzzer. However, Bachmann knew her audience well and, really, was about as cuckoo as a fox. In that moment, she connected Rick Perry not only to Big Pharma – which her base doesn’t give a rip about but interests the media – but also, by echoing the phony autism/vaccine controversy from a few years back, she pleased the libertarians who think the government is out to get us (vaccines in arms today; computer chips in brains tomorrow). And finally, scoring the old hat trick, she stroked the social conservatives who agree with her that preventing 70 percent of cervical cancers years from now is no reason to vaccinate girls today. (Better they die of cervical cancer down the road than think they can get away with having sex in their teens.)

Bachmann’s misinformation about HPV vaccination so offended two bioethicists that they offered $11,000 to the charity of her choice for scientific proof connecting mental retardation to HPV vaccination. They know they’re going to keep their money. As Dr. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was quoted as saying, “Since the vaccine has been introduced, 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.”

Well, safety and good sense are one thing, but Republican politics are another. Misinformation about anything to do with sex – or birth control or abortion – is Republican dogma these days. From insisting biologically accurate sex education promotes promiscuity in teens to opposing the emergency birth control medication “Plan B,” which is proved to prevent pregnancy but not capable of ending an established pregnancy, to continuing to spread the well-debunked myths that breast cancer, depression, and infertility can be caused by abortion, the social conservatives who rule the Republican Party revel in misinformation. And Bachmann is their darling.

Interestingly, Republican heavyweights think she went too far on the HPV vaccine. (Rush Limbaugh said she “jumped the shark.”) However, the best observation may have come from Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post who questioned both Bachmann and Perry for campaigning as if “ignorance is virtue and intelligence is a vice.”

It’s a sobering thought, and not just for Republicans.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.