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Category: Politics

Stepping Over the Line

| October 30, 2008


Voters know when a candidate has broken the civility rules. More important, they care. A woman hoping to be reelected to her seat in the House of Representatives may well learn that lesson next Tuesday.

Every election season, someone steps over “the line.” You know the one—the invisible partisan line that politicians creep up to and lean against when criticizing their opponents. They usually don’t cross over because of the possible career-ending consequences of poking a toe onto the side of socially unacceptable remarks—like the girlfriend who won’t say your outfit is hideous.

She’ll stay safely on her side of the line and call it “interesting.” 

Sometimes lines are fuzzy or can shift at a moment’s notice, and it’s simple to slip up. But then there are the bright lines, the ones most people find easy to remember.

Minnesota Congresswoman and newly minted pundit Michele Bachmann recently learned the hard way about paying attention to those bright lines. She decided to question how “American” Barack and Michelle Obama really are, and further, called on the media to conduct an investigation of everyone in Congress (presumably not her) to find out how pro-American or anti-American our elected officials are.

When I saw it live on MSNBC’s Hardball, I thought, “Funny, she doesn’t look like Joe McCarthy.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, because the YouTube clip of her comments went viral almost instantly.

And then came the unintended, possibly career-ending, consequences of her comments. Voters all over the country—without prompting—poured about $1.5 million dollars into the little watched Congressional campaign of Bachmann’s Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg. It was the Internet equivalent of the scene in the movie “Network” where the doomed news anchor portrayed by Peter Finch leads fed-up viewers in screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

In that moment on Hardball, even though Americans are starting to pinch pennies as our budgets and 401(k)s dwindle, something pushed an amazing number of voters all over the country to make political contributions to a guy they’d never heard of. They had to do something to counter their outrage over Bachmann’s McCarthy-esque comments. So they took at least a small stand to keep her from a second term.

During this presidential campaign, we’ve been mildly peeved about shopping sprees, ministers and teen pregnancies. But invoke the memory of the Committee on Un-American Activities, and Americans push back.

Bachmann crossed a pretty clear political line with her statements, and as we get closer to November 4 her political career is looking less and less promising. The scary thing is that we don’t always have this kind of reaction to those who practice the politics of suspicion and innuendo. There are plenty of audiences willing to listen to, and agree with, sentiments like those that Bachmann expressed to Chris Matthews.

But after watching the campaign contributions pour in to the Tinklenberg for Congress campaign, my faith in our system and how we react to questionable politics was restored, at least a little bit.