Michele Bachmann’s Legendary Loud-Mouthed Campaign Guru

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Cheryl Senter / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ed Rollins, a veteran strategist newly attached to Rep. Michele Bachmann, has a deceptively simple LinkedIn profile. Only two jobs are publicly listed: his current position as a fellow for CNN and Hofstra University and a stint as “Assistant to the President” from 1981 to 1987. Unmentioned are the slew of campaigns he’s worked on since helping to twice put Ronald Reagan in the White House. In the course of those jobs, Rollins has established a cycle of making incendiary comments and retractions, a reputation for pugilistic campaigning, and an almost legendary status in the GOP. Hiring him has many times been a signal that a “Seriously?” candidate has gotten truly serious.

With his latest comments about Sarah Palin — he said she’s failed to prove herself a candidate with “substance” and that she had the “vice presidential thing handed to her” — Rollins departed from Bachmann’s insistence that the two Tea Party icons are buddies. And Palin’s people responded: “Beltway political strategist Ed Rollins has a long, long track record of taking high profile jobs and promptly sticking his foot in his mouth,” said Sarah PAC chief of staff Michael Glassner in a statement. “To no one’s surprise he has done it again … One would expect that his woodshed moment is coming and that a retraction will be issued soon.” One thing you can say about Rollins, who grew up wrestling: the man knows how to start a fight.

Sometimes his controversies have no upside, as when he bragged to reporters in 1993 that Republicans helped him win a narrow victory for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman by spending thousands to keep black people home on election day. (He later recanted.) Or when, after being brought onto the Bob Dole presidential campaign in 1995, he made a joke during a roast calling two Jewish congressmen “Hymie boys,” a comment that quickly brought an end to his role with the campaign. This is the behavior that earns him news leads like, “Ed Rollins must wish he had kept his big mouth shut,” and satirical lines from his supposed pundit resumé like “G.O.P. Consultant: Has experience in making mistakes.”

But there is no doubt that the man generally knows how to work the press, and his comments sometimes seem like they might be part of a sophisticated good-cop/bad-cop scheme. Pundits wondered if this was the case in early 2008 when he was working for Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. He wanted Huckabee to run a negative ad against Mitt Romney, but after some initial showings, Huckabee decided to shelve it. Still, they showed the spot to a group of reporters, presenting it as an example of the kind of campaign Huckabee wasn’t going to run. Meanwhile Rollins said he wanted to knock Romney’s “teeth out” (to which Romney brilliantly responded, just “don’t touch the hair.”) So in the end, Rollins simply lives up to his reputation for playing tough while Huckabee defies him by turning the other cheek instead of getting into the mudslinging. And together they steal some headlines.

This same sort of routine could be at work with Bachmann and Palin. The two occupy much of the same ground—with their Tea Party fire, their social-conservative strongholds, their womanhood—and we know that one of them, eventually, will have to go (if they actually enter the presidential race). So if you’re Bachmann, perhaps your best bet is to get an adviser who will pick the fight that’s too politically unpopular for you to pick, and then distance yourself from him. A classic one-two. After the comments from Palin’s people, Rollins did walk his statement back a bit, but with characteristic sass. “This was my transition from being an analyst to a political strategist, and I missed a step,” he told Politico. But when asked whether there would be a retraction, he quipped, “”What’s the retraction? I say she’s serious?”

If we look for lessons in Rollins’ history—which, given that he’s pushing 70 and still in the game, is quite rich—we can speculate about what will need to happen in order for his relationship with Bachmann to work. For one, she’ll need to take some direction. Rollins’ greatest accomplishments were with Reagan, a politician famous for having large events (as well as small meetings) strictly scripted. And when Ross Perot wouldn’t take Rollins’ advice to spend more money during the 1992 campaign, Rollins jumped ship.

He also described Jack Kemp, whose failed presidential campaign Rollins led in 1988, as having a Quarterback Mentality, saying, “Quarterbacks think they can always make the big play and resent being controlled by anyone.” Something that one could only learn by trying to control him in the first place. And taking direction doesn’t seem to come naturally for the Minnesota Clipper, who “has burned through four chiefs of staff in five years, often preferring her own counsel or that of her close-knit family.”

Bachmann will also have to especially avoid gaffes that can be linked to Rollins’ political baggage, and, perhaps most important, be willing to play a little dirty. “The negatives feel good,” Ed Rollins told the Washington Post around the time of the Huckabee incident. “It’s like being a boxer when you’re young. To me, hitting somebody, knocking somebody down, is a great feeling. Firing out a negative ad just feels amazing.”