Leading into Monday evening’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Fla., it looked as if there would be a Republican free-for-all over Social Security. Mitt Romney’s challenge to Rick Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” characterization of the Social Security Administration and how the Texas governor wanted to eliminate the social safety net of millions of retirees had been the focus of a lot of speculation.
And there were signs Rep. Michele Bachmann wanted to get into the fracas as well, perhaps in an effort to shore up her declining poll numbers. But Bachmann did not pursue the Social Security issue. Instead, displaying adroit political instincts, she went after Perry on his controversial 2007 executive order to have every female of high school age in Texas vaccinated against the sexually transmitted HPV virus.
It is an issue that would hit home with nearly every voter — the insinuation of the government in the private decisions of a family. And if painting Perry as dictatorial with regard to things best decided in the privacy of individual households was not enough, Bachmann delivered another shot meant to alienate Perry with voters — possible crony capitalism.
“I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can’t deny that.”
Bachmann was referring to Perry’s former chief of staff, who had become a lobbyist for Merck, the only pharmaceutical company at the time that had an approved vaccine for the Human papillomavirus (HPV). Perry has heard the accusation numerous times in Texas.
“The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor,” Bachmann continued. “And this is just flat-out wrong.”
“The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry replied. “I raised about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
Bachmann declined to ask how much it would take for him to forego offense, but her point was made. Gov. Perry equals crony capitalism. Elect him and he just might issue an executive order — per some lobbyist’s order — that compels citizens to do things they do not want — and should not have — to do.
She was playing to the tea party crowd.
The attack showed Bachmann’s keen political instincts. If she had gone after Perry on Social Security, he would undoubtedly have tossed derogatory statements that Bachmann had said about the beleaguered system over the years. Switching to the HPV vaccine and insinuating his political cooperation could be purchased left her relatively free of a counter-attack — and it placed Perry on the defensive, forced him to defend the charge of cronyism and positioned him to look like a meddling politician that has little respect for citizens’ rights.
It is exactly what the Minnesota congresswoman needed. Sinking in the polls and having made a serious policy mistake in Florida by calling for responsible drilling in the Everglades, the CNN/Tea Party Debate likely could have been a part of the death knell of her campaign. But far from the lackluster performances she offered in South Carolina and California last week (the latter being a debate, the former a discussion forum), she delivered a sharp and targeted message throughout.
But the sharpest and most directly targeted message was shot at Perry, the current GOP frontrunner. It is through such tough maneuvers that she might see her numbers climb again. Aided by her colleagues at the debate, several of whom got in carefully directed shots at Perry as well, she just might have done some damage to the Texas governor’s double-digit lead in the race for president.