Michele Bachmann, Unprincipled Demagogue

I have a soft spot in my heart for Michele Bachman. She is as sharp as a whip, she is as tough as nails, she is easy on the eye, and she takes care with her appearance. It nearly always lifts my heart when I see her in a video, and I usually love what she has to say. Moreover, once upon a time in the past, in giving a talk, she actually read out a post I had put up on Powerline. What’s not to like?

There was something about her conduct in the debate on Monday night, however, that I did not like. She was obviously desperate. In the polls, where she had once ranked high, she had fallen to 4%; and, in her desperation, she crossed a line. Her imputation that Rick Perry’s decision to issue an executive order mandating the inoculation of young girls with Gardasil was due to the fact that Merck was a donor to his campaign was a low blow. As he explained, he had raised $30 million, and Merck gave his campaign $5,000. That she continued to pursue this charge in a television interview the next morning was disgraceful.

Even worse was her response to Perry’s statement that he was offended that she thought that he could be bought for $5,000. As you may remember, she said portentously that she was offended on behalf of the little girls and their parents. In a post on the debate, entitled Rick Perry and the Seven Dwarfs, Roger Simon hit the nail on the head: “To Bachmann and Santorum this attempt to prevent cancer, whether ill-founded or not, was a form of child molestation or something. The more they went on about this, the more rabid, and frankly scary, they sounded.”

The truth is, of course, that Perry was legitimately concerned about the welfare of those little girls. We are in the midst of an epidemic. The Center for Disease Control  estimates that one-half of all Americans who are sexually active will sooner or later get human papillomavirus (HPV). We have known for nearly forty years that one of the strains of this disease (HPV-16) causes cervical cancer in women; we now know that it can cause cancer in men; and , more often than not, the cancer strikes women and men in their thirties and forties.  There are six million new cases of HPV every year, and 99% of those who get the virus have no idea that they have contracted it. For them, there are no symptoms – which makes it all the more likely that they will pass it on.

There are two vaccines on the market that target HPV-16: Gardasil and Cervarix. They are, Men’s Health reports,

95 percent effective in girls and young women and 90 percent effective in boys and young men when administered before exposure to the strain [my emphasis].  But despite the impressive percentages, vaccination is a controversial issue for many parents, in part because the possible side effects include fever, fainting, and (rarely) severe allergic reaction and blood clots. Some parents also have trouble with the idea of protecting their prepubescent kids from a virus related to sex, while other parents, mistakenly believing that HPV affects only girls (in the form of cervical cancer), assume that vaccinating boys is irrelevant. The result: Roughly 4 percent of boys have received the shot. Last year, in a move that may sway hesitant parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics included HPV in its schedule of vaccines for boys.

These are the fears that, in a desperate attempt to keep their candidacies alive, Michele Bachmann (and Rick Santorum) are playing on and stoking. Rick Perry may have erred in issuing an executive order providing for the immunization of the young girls in Texas. It may well be the case that he should have taken the matter to the legislature. He may also have erred when he stipulated that the immunizations would take place if the parents of the girls did not opt out. But he was not wrong in encouraging the immunizations. He was following the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

HPV is not contagious in the manner that polio, measles, and whooping cough are. It is passed by sexual contact – including oral sex. If a young man and a young woman avoid sexual contact before marrying and never stray, they will escape it. If, however, either one of them has ever committed a sin of the flesh, the odds are reasonably good that they will both end up with the disease and that neither one will be aware of the fact. This is not, as some are apt to argue, a purely private matter. Like polio, measles, and whooping cough – though not to the same degree – it falls into the realm of public health, for the disease contracted by one who is not innocent of misconduct is apt to pass to one who is, and the results can be fatal. It is Rick Perry who demonstrated that he cares for the welfare of those little girls. Michele Bachmann’s conduct in this particular shows that she is willing to sacrifice their interests for the sake of demagoguery.

If you have any doubts, take a look at this video , where Bachmann revives the old discredited fears spread in the past about vaccinations in general by endorsing the view that Gardasil can cause mental retardation. This she does on the basis of a claim made to her after the debate by a woman with a retarded child. That is all the evidence she had.

Here is what Evan Siegfried of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership said in response, “Congressman Bachmann’s decision to spread fear of vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible. There is zero credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause mental retardation or autism. She should cease trying to foment fear in order to advance her political agenda.” Siegfried is right. One of the reasons why measles and whooping cough have made a comeback is that parents, frightened by the sort of nonsense that Michele Bachmann is now propagating, are reluctant to have their children immunized.

Before a vaccine like Gardasil goes on the market, the Food and Drug Administration has it put through an enormous amount of testing. If anything, the FDA is too cautious in this regard. Readers of this post who are instinctively inclined to side with Bachmann on this matter might want to ask why the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that prepubescent girls and boys be given these shots.

And Michele Bachmann? She owes Rick Perry a public apology, and she owes an apology to the parents whom she has misled.  It is, in any case, time that she dropped out of the race. Her unscrupulous, unprincipled pursuit of a nomination that she never had a chance of getting is now leading her to do positive harm – and not just to her party and its likely nominee, but to boys and girls throughout the land. She should head for the exits before she does herself and the rest of us more harm.

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  1. Mollie Hemingway

    It seems a couple of issues are being conflated in discussions of this Gardasil vaccine. On the one hand, people are wrong when they say this is a dangerous vaccine. It isn’t. On the other hand, people are wrong when they say that this meets the relatively high barrier for government mandating the vaccine for children. It doesn’t. Or, at the very least, the rush to mandate it was supremely odd.

    I also think it’s time for Bachmann to get out of the race, and I agree that she was over the top last night, but neither should we presume that Perry, whose chief of staff was hired by Merck (which ran the campaign to mandate the vaccination), behaved as a conservative here. For more on this, I recommend Jesse Walker’s take four years ago.

  2. Calvin Dodge

    Bachmann has earned a “no cash from me” award, good until (if) she wins the nomination.

  3. Randy Weivoda

    I also like Michelle Bachmann, and also find this over the top.  It’s one thing to argue against Governor Perry mandating it by executive order, but to come out as anti-vaccine makes it embarrassing to be one of her supporters. 

  4. Terrell David

    I agree that Bachmann pushed the issue way too far last night.  She should have made the point and left it alone.  

    The merits of the vaccine are one issue.  The government taking action in default is another issue. 

    She couldn’t help herself and pushed it too far. She made it out to be an open/shut case when it is more of a position to take on how powerful you think the government should be.

  5. Mollie Hemingway

    Speaking of over the top, check out this ad that Kay Bailey Hutchison made (but did not distribute) about the issue. Yowza.

  6. M
    James Of England
    Paul A. Rahe

    But he was not wrong in encouraging the immunizations. He was following the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    I’m not saying that you’re coming to the wrong conclusions, but you’re applying a lot of dubious principles to get to them.

  7. tabula rasa

    What is it about running for high office that pushes otherwise honorable people into making gross exaggerations or stating absolute falsehoods that are intended to stain the character of an opponent?  Probably a dumb question.  Is it desperation when they realize that their (false) sense of destiny is unlikely to become reality?

  8. flownover

    As a parent I was so excited when I heard that there was a vaccine against a (any ) type of cancer that my daughter might face. I don’t even consider the std part of the equation. That Perry did it in such a wholesale manner might be a little trouble in the conceptual world of personal liberties, but in a commonsense world what he did was pretty great in the end.

    He also admitted error in overreaching, so all bases are covered.

    What Bachmann did was ,unfortunately, desperate as you said. And ,as you said, she might as well fold her tent. 

    These debates are troubling, or maybe it was just the msnbc and CNN presenting them as such. I think they know enough about editing to make anyone look bad. 

    Bachmann took the bait this morning, not so much last night. Probably an attempt at a set-up, the other side won ,in a way. And our side won by flushing out some fervidly mistaken notion. (Sort of like taxing the rich so the teachers can pay the union dues that end up in Obama’s campaign- now that is a hidden mistake)

  9. Basil Fawlty

    Are you so contemptuous of parents that you believe they need the government to tell them what decisions they must make regarding the health of their children?

  10. The King Prawn

    With the nation heading toward a financial cliff and Obama proposing up shifting (and maybe hitting the nitrous) who would have thought this would be the divisive issue in the nomination process?

  11. Mel Foil

    I heard Bachmann’s Minnesota critics advancing the proposition that Bachmann and her husband recently changed churches (From a WELS Lutheran Church to an Evangelical Baptist-flavored megachurch) for political reasons. WELS has a reputation (not completely deserved) for being anti-Catholic. So Bachmann’s critics smelled politics in their decision to switch denominations. I thought that was a ridiculous charge to make, but based on recent events, I’m now not sure that the critics were wrong. She seems so desperate these days. Where does she draw the line?

  12. Diane Ellis
    Basil Fawlty: Are you so contemptuous of parents that you believe they need the government to tell them what decisions they must make regarding the health of their children? · Sep 13 at 3:08pm

    I think it’s also helpful to consider the population of Texas.  It’s huge, heterogeneous, and has a large immigrant population.  I’d say that for that specific population, an opt-out default is preferable to an opt-in default.  That way the children of negligent parents, or of busy single mothers, or of parents who don’t speak English are protected from a fatal disease.  And that way, good, involved parents who will make sure that their daughters never leave the home until they’re married can opt-out.

  13. Basil Fawlty

    Everything you say is true.  The “medical establishment” promotes all sorts of “medical dogma” and on occasion it is questionable or even wrong.  But – and it is a very big but – most of the time about most medical issues the “medical dogma” is either the best course of action or the best advice. 

    For the most part, the root sources of medical dogma are clinical experience and published research, so, if you aren’t going to believe the recommendations of physicians or medical associations, the question is “who you gonna call”? · Sep 13 at 6:51pm

    The Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia?

  14. Cobalt Blue

    I’ve posted several comments and posts in the past few weeks in defense of Bachmann’s candidacy. While I’ve tried to give her the benefit of the doubt on some issues, chiefly to keep alive a viable not-Romney (and not-Perry) campaign, methinks the time has come to give up on her. Her weakness as a candidate has been all too clear but, more importantly, her uncritical parroting of the mental retardation claim, stemming from obvious desperation, is just mind bogglingly stupid. Ace summed things up nicely when discussing Rush’s take on the matter. I’m now squarely back to undecided (but increasingly concerned that all of these candidates are unacceptably flawed).

  15. jetstream

    Basil Fawlty – I had the awful experience of watching a family member die from cervical cancer, it was beyond gruesome.  You should spend some time in chemotherapy rooms, you’ll see the issue very differently.  A vaccination against any carcinogenic virus is a major medical advance and everyone, male or female, should take advantage.

  16. Basil Fawlty
    Paul A. Rahe

    Basil Fawlty

    And so only the residents of small, homogeneous states without a large immigrant population get to make it their own health care decisions?  Great.  · Sep 13 at 5:53pm

    Basil, what do you think public policy should be in the case of something like the influenza epidemic of 1918? Should healthcare decisions be left to individuals when carelessness on their part will mean the death of their neighbors? You keep parroting the line that healthcare decisions should be left to individuals. Where does that stop? Nowhere? Are we as a people to be denied the right to self-defense? After all, sometimes that can only be exercised by coercing our neighbors. · Sep 13 at 6:14pm

    I believe there should have been mandatory vaccinations then.  There should be mandatory vaccinations now for easily-transmitted airborne diseases like measles.  There should be no mandatory vaccinations for non-transmittable diseases like Shingles.  HPV is a middle case.  It is transmittable, but not through the air or casual contact.  Weighing the public health value in preventing the spread of an STD against the value of individual autonomy, I come down on the side of individual autonomy.

  17. KC Mulville

    On the one hand, the situation is obvious. Money follows attention, attention follows the media, and the media follows its own agenda. To stay competitive, you need at attract attention, and that means “differentiating” yourself. The quickest path is through controversy.

    On the other hand, if we wanted yet another media slave, we always have the Democrat Party.

    Frankly, the best alternative is to choose the route that Newt Gingrich is taking. Newt gets noticed at the debates because he frequently offers a sharp, informed, and non-packaged answer. Have something interesting to say. Of course, being quick on your feet and saying interesting things during debate doesn’t make a president – and maybe it’s a long shot for Newt. But he does attract attention, and that’s a better approach than just lashing out.

  18. Alcina

     1.  I was never taken in by Bachmann; she always seemed to me to be a nutty, opportunistic demagogue.  2.  There are plenty of adverse reactions that have shown up in the post-marketing setting that didn’t appear in the clinical trials; the longer a drug has been on the market, the more confidence one will have in its safety.  3.  Why, no, I don’t assume Perry’s good faith on this one, especially since his former chief of staff was at Merck (perhaps a more signficant fact than the $5,000 donation?).  Maybe he’s still the best one out there, but this episode is a blot.  Fortunately for Perry, Bachmann is making such a fool out of herself that it will make him look better.

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    Richard Young: Even if you take Perry at his word about his motivation for signing this executive order it doesn’t absolve him.  In fact it indicts him.  He’s basically saying that parents aren’t concerned or informed enough about the safety and lives of their own children to get them immunized if needed.  How is this different than any of the other nanny state initiatives proposed by Mrs. Obama or Mayor Bloomfield or any other politician?  The notion that we need the government to mandate behavior to save us from ourselves is highly objectionable.  The list of them, many supported by Republicans is long and worrisome.  This is one area where Ron Paul is spot on. · Sep 13 at 6:43pm

    Richard, that is precisely why we have government — to exercise on our behalf our collective right of self-defense. We mandate behavior, and we incarcerate those who do not comply. My bet is that there is mandatory vaccination in Massachusetts, and that the candidate your prefer has no objection to it. There is and long has been in Minnesota, and as a state legislator Michele Bachmann never objected.

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