Posted Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, at 11:46 PM
A few months ago, when Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign mattered, it kept up the frontrunner's pose with the press. You wanted access to the candidate? They'd get back to you. Multiple reporters complained that the Bachmann campaign's security had pushed them aside when they tried to ask her questions. My own experience wasn't so physical, but I didn't have much luck with the candidate. GQ contracted me to do a short profile of Bachmann, with a long lead time. I asked for a short interview; I was told they'd pass. Hey, it's all in the game. A campaign should schedule as many friendly interviews and as few possibly non-friendly interviews as possible.
Like I said, this was months ago. We couldn't tell it at the time, but Bachmann was going to peak in August. The winner of the Ames Straw Poll only grabbed 8 percent in the last Des Moines Register survey, basically tied with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for fourth place. She hired, then lost, the brusque and back-stab-happy strategist Ed Rollins, who has spent his post-Bachmann career calling the campaign incompetant. She lost her pollster and shifted three staffers from her presidential campaign to her congressional office. Reporters pay attention to stuff like this, and accordingly, they've focused less attention on a campaign that's clearly losing. After the CNN debate in Las Vegas, this was what it looked like in Bachmann's section of the spin room.
The blonde woman being interviewed is Bachmann's press handler Alice Stewart, and the man is campaign manager Keith Nahigian. This brings us up to now. My colleague John Dickerson, who was promoted today to become CBS News's political director (he's still at Slate -- don't worry!), was deeply involved with the network's programming for tonight's Republican debate. At 2:42 p.m., Stewart was accidentally cc'd on a planning email from Dickerson, about a Bachmann availability tonight. "Okay," he wrote, "let's keep it loose though since she's not going to get many questions and she's nearly off the charts in the hopes that we can get someone else."
The Bachmann campaign held onto this; in the 10 p.m. hour, Nahigian posted the e-mail to the campaign Facebook page.
While Michele has been onstage at tonight's debate demonstrating strong leadership on foreign policy and national security, we received concrete evidence confirming what every conservative already knows - the liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message and limiting Michele's questions.
Is that a fair reflection of this email -- sent this afternoon, not "while Michele has been onstage"? Dickerson tells me that the email was just a reflection of reality. "Bachmann is under 4 percent in the polls," he says. "That's what was behind that email." There are metrics that determine who, at any given moment, is likely to win a presidential nomination. Bachmann's low poll numbers and shrinking staff tell us that she's less likely to be a presidential nominee than, say, a candidate who is not collapsing in the polls and losing campaign staff. There are two candidates who weren't allowed into this debate because of bad polls and metrics -- Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer -- and it would be strange if the same standards weren't used to guide the debate itself. And time not given to Bachmann in debates is time given to candidates who have, yep, "conservative messages." Is Bachmann's argument that candidates should be given equal media coverage irrespective of what they're earning? That sounds like a demand for equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.
And then there's how Nahigian has talked about this.
Furious with Dickerson's response, Bachmann's campaign manager Keith Nahigian stormed through the spin room, where he said, "John Dickerson should be fired. He is a piece of shit. He is a fraud and he should be fired."
This'll get a couple of much-needed headlines for a struggling campaign, and it's mostly harmless; John Dickerson's job and reputation will be here long after the Bachmann campaign ends. But I'm not sure what the "fraud" is. It's the Bachmann campaign's job to control media access to the candidate; it used to have too much interest, and now it has too little. It's the job of political reporters to vet the people running for office, and in a race like this one, there's a fuzzy but visible separation between the candidates who may become president and the candidates who can't. Running for president isn't an open invitation for every reporter to get time with you. The flipside: It isn't a guarantee that you will get as much coverage and attention as you want.