The GOP’s Michele Bachmann Problem

By trying to push her aside, House Republicans may have created their own worst nightmare.

Rep. Michele Bachmann 

Michele Bachmann had a very good 2010, by most measures: She held on to her Minnesota congressional seat by a wide margin, raising more money than any other House Republican candidate along the way. She enjoyed more media attention than ever, beloved as she is by TV bookers for her willingness to be memorably bombastic and serve as a near parody of the far-right. (A recent Huffington Post roundup of Bachmann’s “greatest hits” included her comparison of financial reform to fascism, a description of health care reform as enabling a “gangster government,” and her conspiracy-minded refusal to fill out the census.) Her savviest move of the year, though, was turning her anti-tax rhetoric into Tea Party stardom and forming the Tea Party Caucus in the House, which made her into the gatekeeper for an important new voting bloc.

And yet, just at the moment when it seemed as if Bachmann’s fringe would have to be welcomed into the fold, establishment Republicans pushed her back. Her bid for a post-election leadership position—the GOP conference chair—met with barely concealed dismay. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner put two other Tea Partiers on his transition team while conspicuously ignoring Bachmann. She resorted to reminding him via Politico why he ought to kiss her ring: “There was a real question, even 18 months ago, about whether the Tea Party would become a third party. I worked really hard to pull them to our party because we have to have a two-party system. I have been able to bring a voice and motivate people to, in effect, put that gavel in John Boehner’s hands, so that Republicans can lead going forward.”

If Boehner’s gratitude is nowhere to be seen, it is because Bachmann presents a particular headache for the GOP. The Tea Party helped propel Republicans into office by attacking Democrats; now, with the dirty work done and popular support for centrist compromise growing, wild cable TV statements are looking more like a liability. And Bachmann is Exhibit A. But by withholding from her the formal power she believes she has earned, the GOP has probably compounded the problem. As Bachmann’s time in the Minnesota state senate made clear, rejection by party elders has a way of energizing her. If things had gone her way, Bachmann might have been tempted to move past Mama Grizzly extremism, but now, she’ll be sticking with it. Boehner should have seen this coming.

The new dynamic is already in effect: After the GOP put the less tea-stained Jeb Hensarling of Texas in the conference chair position, Bachmann moved rapidly from faux-graciousness to promising an insurrection “against our own leadership” if it failed to accomplish what the Tea Party had asked for. In a November interview with the New York Times, she came across as almost thuggish, pointing out both her street cred (“I’ve been willing to take on my own party, my own leadership, my own president before, so I would be willing to do that again, if I felt there’s a principled reason to do so”) and her movement’s might.

The next slight came when Bachmann was passed over for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee for which she was rumored to be canvassing and which would have inserted her into tax-policy debates and into the coming health care showdown. Instead, the steering committee slotted her for the House Intelligence Committee, a rather Machiavellian move: While on paper it’s a prestigious assignment, the committee’s workings are intrinsically hush-hush. As one observer told Politico, “If you’re looking for media and controversy, that’s not the committee to be on.” That’s particularly rough for Bachmann, powered as she is by media attention.

She accepted the intelligence appointment in a particularly Mama Grizzly-esque manner, connecting the distant dots of motherhood and national security on her Facebook page: “As a mother of five biological children and 23 foster children I pledge to do whatever I need to do to keep your family, my family, and the United States safe from harm.” This was the sound of Bachmann scrambling. While terrorists are one of her favorite talking points (she attributes her 2006 election to her commitments to “cutting taxes, building roads and protecting the nation against radical jihadists”), national security isn’t precisely the former tax attorney’s forte.

Twice disappointed, Bachmann turned back to the business of making her own news. In December came word that she’d lined up Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to speak at the first Conservative Constitutional Seminar, a weekly lecture series Bachmann is organizing for the Tea Party Caucus. (Scalia will discuss—though apparently not live out—the separation of powers.) Meanwhile, her spokesman is stoking rumors of a 2012 run for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s seat. (If she decides to run, Bachmann won’t lack the cash: Fundraising for her House race this fall was of a magnitude usually associated with statewide races, she still has nearly $2 million of it in the bank, and she has already, post-election, sent out several e-mails asking for donations.)

If Bachmann goes after Klobuchar, it won’t be the first time she has been rebuffed from a leadership role only to emerge with a higher profile. In 2005, while still a Minnesota state senator, she was asked by the Senate Republican Caucus to step down from her position as assistant minority leader in charge of policy after less than a year. At the time, Bachmann explained her demotion as the result of her extreme anti-tax stance. “My philosophical differences with the minority leader were just too deep for him to allow me to continue in a leadership position,” she said. And indeed, she had provoked much frustration by attempting to shoehorn both anti-abortion and anti-tax proposals into unrelated legislation, stalling bills the GOP had hoped to pass. In another unpopular move, she asked her supporters of an anti-gay-marriage initiative in 2004 to come into the state Senate to directly lobby their representatives. The resulting disruption got Bachmann her headlines, if not the affection of her colleagues.

Dick Day, the state Senate’s minority leader at the time, told me that Bachmann was ousted because she’d decided to run for national office and that it wasn’t good for the caucus if its leadership team’s attention was elsewhere. He was careful not to cite any specific legislation on which she’d clashed with the caucus’s aims but did add that “she seems to strike out on her own more than as a team,” and he let slip a little sly empathy for  Boehner and company. “I can tell you I know what the leadership is going through out there,” he said. Sixteen months after her ouster from the caucus, Bachmann was elected to Minnesota’s 6th District, with an eight-point margin over her Democratic opponent.

Whether or not Bachmann repeats the feat by ascending to the Senate in 2012, she certainly won’t slouch away in the face of the House leadership’s rejection, nor will she work quietly at its bidding. And in one sense, that’s admirable: For all the talk about how the Tea Party has been particularly welcoming to women, and for all the movement’s championing of traditional womanly jobs as excellent preparation for politics, it’s striking that its two most prominent faces, Bachmann and Palin, have approached their political careers in what could be considered a stereotypically male fashion. People sometimes argue that women make better managers and better legislators because they are more willing to cooperate and are better than men at getting people to work well together. But the flip side of that stereotype is that women politicians are less likely to become stars because they end up doing the hard work that keeps an organization humming—but which doesn’t make them boldface names.

In some ways, Bachmann is quite workmanlike: She is a tax attorney who wears sensible shoes, one who got to be a demagogue the hard way, by doggedly showing up to throw flames at appearances large and small. But when it comes to the bigger picture, she, like Palin, has figured out that putting her nose to the grindstone won’t get her where she wants to go all that quickly and that she can make better use of that appendage by keeping it out of joint—and on cable news, preferably. Had Boehner and company given Bachmann a seat at the table, they might have contained her. Ambulatory, she’ll run amok.

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