Michele Bachmann claims she was speaking in jest when she said that Hurricane Irene and last week's earthquake in Virginia were signs from God that the United States needed to cut spending. But given Bachmann's track record of careless or inaccurate statements on the campaign trail, this doesn't seem likely. Rather, it seems indicative of a political tactic that has been used quite a lot lately: making an outlandish or fictitious statement and then disavowing it once it has achieved its purpose.
Bachmann's remarks bore striking similarities to those Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, made about Planned Parenthood in April. You don't have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked, Kyl said while testifying on the Senate floor in favor of a bill that would have cut federal funding to the organization. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.
It didn't take long for fact-checkers to realize there was something off about that figure. In fact, abortions account for just 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. When CNN called Kyl's office to ask why the senator had taken to the floor with such a grossly exaggerated number, his spokesman gave an absurd excuse: His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.
This explanation was so nonsensical, it couldn't even pretend to be serious. After all, if saying that an inherently factual statement like a statistic was not intended to be a factual statement isn't tantamount to an outright admission of deception, nothing is. As it doesn't seem likely that Jon Kyl thought he could get away with such a blatant lie, it follows that he wanted to plant the idea that Planned Parenthood's work consisted overwhelmingly of abortions, so that even after he was forced to back down, the perception would still be out there. And so it was, because as soon as the words left Kyl's mouth, the 90 percent statistic was in the congressional record for perpetuity.
As Stephen Colbert put it on an episode of The Colbert Report in April, the 90 percent figure wasn't intended to be a factual statement -- it was only meant to be taken as one.
The same goes for Bachmann's attribution of Hurricane Irene to God's wrath over the federal budget. It's not that she expected people to take her argument at face value, as many did Kyl's; she surely did not. But the essential argument she was making -- that President Obama's economic policies have had dire consequences -- was strengthened, and that argument will stick with her supporters even after she has dismissed her remarks as a joke.
This is by no means just a Republican tactic; it is a generic political tactic, and an unfortunately effective one. Statements like Bachmann's and Kyl's seem not like slips of the tongue or research mistakes, but intentional lies, and the ensuing disavowals seem less like apologies than tricks to shed responsibility for false statements without undoing their political impact.