COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa—Michele Bachmann wants Iowa to know that she was right all along.
“I went back to Washington not once, not twice, not three times—I went back to Washington four times to vote ‘no’ on raising the debt ceiling!” she says.
There are more than 70 people listening to this message. It’s hot. She ran a little late. Some of them volunteered to sit to Bachmann’s left or right to hold signs behind her, but most are in the shade. They’re not reacting or applauding yet.
“What we saw last week is the markets agreed with me,” says Bachmann. “The markets saw what happened in Washington when Obama got a $2.4 trillion check. And one thing you learned is you can’t fool the markets! The politicians were busy applauding themselves! They were patting each other on the back! They were saying, ‘Didn’t we do a great job! We just raised the debt ceiling!’ How did that make you feel?”
There’s the reaction. Over the course of 25 minutes, the GOP’s co-frontrunner finds space for all of her usual applause lines: There aren’t any czars on our campaign bus! … In a Michele Bachmann administration, there won’t be any teleprompters! … We’re going to make sure Barack Obama is a one-term president!
The winning argument, the one she keeps returning to, is the saga of Michele and the Debt Limit. She followed her instincts. Iowa Republicans shared those instincts. They were right, and the elitists were wrong. (When aren’t they wrong?) They promised that if the debt limit got hiked, rating agencies would go back to sleep. They didn’t. Standard & Poor’s lowered America’s bond rating from AAA to AA+.
“It was lowered for the first time in American history!” says Bachmann. “We kept that rating during the Great Depression. We kept it during World War II. We kept it during Vietnam. We kept it after nine-one-one.” (This is how Bachmann pronounces 9/11.)
Her would-be supporters, her would-be Ames Straw Poll voters, grimace and nod. They wish they weren’t so right about all this.
Spending cuts or no, the debt limit “never should have been raised,” sighs Anita Cote, who’s come to the rally with her husband. A few years back they sold their clothing store and retired, and they had been doing well, but they have friends who aren’t thriving. They see the spending coming out of Washington and identify a culprit. “You’d never run a business that way, and the people didn’t want it to be raised.”
The second part of that is true. That’s part of the happy paradox that Bachmann and her congressional colleagues have created in Iowa. In polls, voters who’d never really been asked the question before said that they didn’t want the debt ceiling increased. It was never clear whether they knew what this meant or whether they knew that no existing deficit-reduction plan—not Paul Ryan’s, not Rand Paul’s—worked without a debt-ceiling hike that allowed America to pay its obligations. They just didn’t like the sound of it, which gave Bachmann an advantage as she inveighed against it.
Then came the downgrade. In S&P’s words, this had something to do with the debt itself, and something to do with fear that “the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.” In Bachmann’s words, it was all about Obama. The idea that Republican intransigence had anything to do with it was nuts. She describes the speech that the president had given shortly before this event started.
“Essentially,” she says, “what the president said is this: The markets reacted because we had a debate in Congress over whether we should raise the debt ceiling. So apparently the markets and the rating agencies decided to punish Congress and all of you because you didn’t want the debt ceiling raised. Are you kidding me?”
It’s cynical, and it works. This is the second version of the speech I’ve heard today, and both times I’ve talked to voters who are basically despondent about the debt downgrade. It’s a body blow. Bachmann compounds the negative feeling voters get when they hear “downgrade” by evoking the primal fear of China—the communists could take this opportunity to surpass the United States. The voters get even more worried, talking about how much money they’ve lost in their retirement plans as a result of the turmoil of July.
“I don’t even want to look at my 401(k),” sighed Norman Mills, a retired salesman, when Bachmann gave the speech in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa. “You can see why S&P did what they did. There’s too much uncertainty. There’s billions of dollars not going into the market because people are so worried about the regulations that could be coming on.”
Many of the people who show up at her rallies Monday say they’re still shopping around, and enough of them say they’re looking at Rick Perry to make it seem like he could stop her surge by getting into the race. Still: All of these people agree with Bachmann’s arguments. After she blisters Barack Obama for spending, then attacks him for “stealing” $500 billion from Medicare to pay for health care reform, no one sees a contradiction. They say that money was for people who’d paid into the system; the cuts can come from other programs.
The candidate they’re having this conversation with has an impressive road show. When she finishes her speech in Council Bluffs, a team of grips starts loading a stage, two tents, an American-flag sign, and a jungle of A/V cables into a truck. One of them tells me his last job was working on Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Two Bachmann aides with iPads strapped to their hands like catcher’s mitts mill around the crowd, signing people up to vote for Bachmann in the straw poll. They offer paper tickets, too, glossy things that promise free food and a Randy Travis concert at the Ames Straw Poll. “I’m going to take you on a date!” jokes Bachmann. “I’m paying!”
There’s still a little dissent. Ron Romine, a Council Bluffs retiree who works one day a week in a Western clothing store, frowns beneath his black cowboy hat. Obama’s quote about Congress inciting the downgrade doesn’t seem so crazy to him.
“That’s one of the only things that’s ever come out of his mouth that I agree with,” he says. “That looked bad. What’s that expression—if people came down from Mars and saw it, what would they think? Hell, we have to do better than that.”
He’s leaning toward supporting Bachmann, because he wants a president who can get all sides of a debate to come together.