Bachmann goes into overdrive

The hardline Minnesota congresswoman is smarter than Sarah Palin, and more dangerous

Bachmann goes into overdrive

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Bachmann goes into overdrive
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

So extreme was the caricature of Michele Bachmann as a kooky wild-eyed right-wing harpy that by the time she turned in a polished performance at her first candidates’ debate in New Hampshire in June, speaking in smooth, fully formed paragraphs and delving into details of national policy, you could almost hear a national gasp.

Without any Palin-esque winks at the cameras or “you-betchas,” the 55-year-old third-term congresswoman and mother of five from Minnesota has emerged as a serious force in the Republican presidential field, surging into second place behind frontrunner Mitt Romney in polls of Republican voters—and in at least one poll, ahead of him.

At a time when former Massachusetts governor Romney is repenting for past moderate positions, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty can’t quite bring himself to attack Romney head-on, and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman entered the race by describing his opposition to Obama as a genteel “difference of opinion on how to help a country we love,” Bachmann, who formally announced her candidacy on Monday, gleefully serves generous helpings of partisan red meat. On health care: “As president of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare.” On Obama’s intervention in Libya: “Absolutely wrong.” On financial regulation: “An over-the-top bill that will actually lead to more job loss.” On reducing corporate taxes: “I’m a former federal tax lawyer. I’ve seen the devastation.” On energy efficiency: “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want.”

Bachmann boasts that she voted against every bailout—including the $700-billion bank measure called TARP—that came up for a vote in the House. Now she opposes raising the debt ceiling on how much the Treasury can borrow—despite warnings it could lead the U.S. to default on its debts. “I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP. It was a wrong vote then. It’s continued to be a wrong vote since then. Sometimes that’s what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party,” she said at the debate.

On social issues, she is equally hardline. She supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Asked at the debate whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest, she said she is “100 per cent pro-life.” She later took Romney to task for not signing the pro-life pledge that includes a commitment to appointing conservative judges, hiring only anti-abortion personnel, and ending any government funding to entities that have anything to do with abortion. When Romney said the pledge was too broad, her campaign expressed “distress.”

Even in the wide field of conservative candidates competing to be the anti-Romney, Bachmann stands apart. “I would describe her as a renegade,” says Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has moderated debates in her congressional races. “You could divide legislators in terms of whether their primary concern is passing legislation or shaping agendas. Michele Bachmann is not about giving and taking. She’s about taking. If it’s not her way, not her agenda, she’ll vote against it.”

Her no-compromise positions make her beloved of small-government activists and a thorn within her own party. After Republicans took over the House in the November elections thanks in part to Tea Party enthusiasm, Bachmann was nonetheless passed over for a spot among the Republican leadership. Instead, she founded and chairs the Tea Party caucus in the House. And after Obama’s State of Union address, she shocked her colleagues by taking the unprecedented step of broadcasting her own personal video reply online, stealing the spotlight from the official Republican responses. (Some camera-placement confusion immortalized her Saturday Night Live caricature as the woman who speaks sideways on the screen.) When the GOP leadership struck a compromise with Democrats to pass a budget to avert a shutdown of the U.S. government, she led opposition among House Republicans who tried to scuttle the deal. (59 GOP members voted against it.) “It’s extraordinary and unusual in contemporary American politics to have so many Republicans vote against the Republican leadership,” says Jacobs.

While every presidential campaign cycle seems to have its ideological purist who draws single-digit support (hello, Dennis Kucinich), Bachmann is doing more than that. She has the elements of a serious effort—a clear political identity, an energized base of faithful supporters, and the ability to raise incredible amounts of money from a base of small donors. In her last congressional race, Bachmann smashed national fundraising records by raising US$11 million. “She is smart and she’s strategic,” says Jacobs.

Bachmann’s politics have been fuelled by strong convictions from the start. Though she once voted for Jimmy Carter, Bachmann converted to Reaganism and evangelical Christianity. She earned her law degree at Oral Roberts University, founded by the charismatic televangelist, and a master’s degree from William and Mary School of Law, becoming a tax attorney for the IRS. She met her husband, Marcus Bachmann, who runs a Christian counselling service, while an undergraduate at Winona State University. Heavily involved in their church and the anti-abortion movement, they became foster parents to help care for unwed mothers, but ended up hosting 23 teenagers in their home, which led to encounters with the public school system that led her to politics­. Bachmann had home-schooled her own kids, but the law required foster children to attend public school; after a failed attempt to create a charter school for them, she became disenchanted with the public schools her foster kids attended and became politically involved.

After a failed run for the school board, Bachmann took a shot at the state senate, taking on a Republican incumbent who did not agree with her on the importance of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Her identity as a Republican rebel was set. “That defines a lot of her understanding of herself and how she goes about things,” says Jacobs. “She approaches it as a renegade who is suspicious of the GOP establishment.”

That quality is appealing to the conservative voters in Iowa, the first state that will weigh in on who should be the Republican candidate. And as it happens, Bachmann was born there—a fact she emphasized as she kicked off a tour of early primary states in Iowa on Monday. An Iowa poll this week showed her tied for first place there with Romney. Iowa state Sen. Jack Whitver, one of the first to endorse her, loves that she took on Republicans. “The one thing that really sold me is that she’s been willing to stand up and fight—and that includes against her own party when it’s necessary. She is not going to go along to get along,” Whitver told Maclean’s. “I think she brings a unique blend of integrity and passion and intellect to the race,” he added, saying that Bachmann had more “passion” than Pawlenty—whose thunder she seems to be stealing. As for frontrunner Romney, Whitver expressed the concerns of many conservatives: “Romney didn’t line up with certain issues that were important to me.”

The flip side of her appeal to conservatives is the uphill task of convincing mainstream Republicans that her hard-line positions and Tea Party association won’t make her unelectable in a general election. She has objected to portrayals of the movement as extremists: “The Tea Party movement is really made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life. People who are libertarians, Republicans. It’s a wide swath of America coming together,” she argued at the New Hampshire debate.

Bachmann’s rise has fuelled inevitable comparisons to Sarah Palin, who continues to flirt with a presidential bid. Both are conservative, high-energy campaigners who have shown that raising large families and running for office are hardly incompatible. And perhaps most strikingly, both came to power by taking on the establishment of their own parties. Palin was a governor—albeit one who quit in the middle of her first term. Bachmann, in contrast, has never held an executive position. While it is rare for senators to be elected to the highest office (as Obama was), it is much rarer still for a member of the House of Representatives to become president—it hasn’t happened since 1880.

But while Palin struggled with demonstrating a command of national issues, Bachmann’s years in Congress and perches both on the House financial services committee and the House select intelligence committee have left her conversant in them. And in a move that seemed aimed at contrasting herself with Palin’s failure to tell Katie Couric which newspapers she reads, Bachmann gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which she listed the economists and philosophers that she reads. “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring [Ludwig] von Mises.”

That is not to say that everything she says is credible. She once called for an investigation of whether Obama holds “anti-American” views. And the website PolitiFact has a long list of her misleading statements, including the claim that Obama’s presidential trip to India cost taxpayers $200 million per day and that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stuck taxpayers with a $100,000 bar tab. Just last week, her official campaign Twitter account tweeted, “Lesson in economic recovery: Consider Canada. No stimulus & unemployment is 20% lower than US”—which must have come as a surprise to a Parliament that passed $40 billion in stimulus. She has also made outlandish claims, for instance that Obama has a secret plan to bankrupt Medicare for senior citizens. On Sunday, Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace asked her point blank, “Are you a flake?” He later apologized.

Whether she will emerge as a serious candidate remains to be seen, but there is no doubt she could play an important role in the presidential contest—mobilizing staunch conservative voters who are angry with Obama and looking to register their protest vote. She could help engage more Republican women and eat away at the gender gap that has traditionally benefited Democrats. And of course she promises to be the conduit for Tea Party enthusiasm and campaign donations, and could help keep pressure on the rest of the Republican field to hew to conservative policy positions.

For now, Bachmann gives the impression of someone having the time of her life. After the CNN debate, in which candidates were asked some goofy personal questions, Bachmann quipped, “I didn’t know if they were going to ask ‘boxers or briefs?’ A girl never knows.” From here on out, her task will be to temper her national image and show that she can be electable, while at the same time organizing on the ground in the early primary states to drive turnout next January.

Her tour of those states—Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina­—which kicked off this week, plans to “highlight important elements of her personal story and her journey to political life.” “She may well surprise in Iowa,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But if Republicans are serious about defeating President Obama—and they are as serious as a heart attack—they will not nominate Bachmann. She is deeply controversial, even in the House GOP caucus, where she is considered difficult to work with and unreliable by the top Republican leadership. She has a long history of not getting along with her own staff. There are mines here that will explode at some point when stepped on during the long campaign.”

The weaker the economy gets, the more likely Republicans can defeat Obama—and the less likely they’ll see the nomination as a contest about ideological purity rather than about general election electability, he adds. “Republicans are going to get cautious as the primary season opens. They won’t want to blow up their chances against Obama.”

Yet winning is not Bachmann’s only goal. “She is a conviction politician and she has an agenda she wants to see promoted. And she is looking for a way to enhance her national standing as a leader of conservative populists in American politics,” says Jacobs.

Besides, stranger things have happened. In the summer of 2007, a little-known first-term senator from Illinois trailed Hillary Clinton by 22 points in the polls. “Keep an eye on Michele Bachmann,” says Jacobs. “She could be the wild card in this race.”