Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bachmann in overdrive, and neutral

It takes a certain chutzpah to launch your presidential campaign from a town called Waterloo. In this day and age — in any day and age since 1815 — you’re just asking for it. Even with no knowledge of the battle, the last chapter in the Napoleonic Wars, the late-night crowd would have a field day with the name association alone, dismissing you with a trail of snickers and one-liners that would follow you all the way to the nomination. The one you would lose.

But Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota did just that on Monday, seven months before the Iowa caucuses, heading back to her home town in Iowa to announce her probably quixotic but certainly heartfelt candidacy for the residency in 2012.

Bachmann, who said it was “these Iowa roots and my faith in God that guide me today,” threw down the gauntlet to Obama. “I am here in Waterloo, Iowa, to announce we can win in 2012 and we will win! … We cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama.”

It may have been so much campaign bravado, the blood-to-the-head rush of a first date animating that claim to the White House. Her path to the nomination will be tough enough, littered with obstacles from her opponents and from Bachmann’s own misbegotten rhetorical past. But Bachmann’s apparently ready right now to act on that necessary of any sound presidential campaign: the courage of her convictions. That could be a formidable thing. Or not.

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Bachmann’s biography has roots in many facets of the American experience. The 55-year-old Minnesota representative born of “Norwegian Lutheran Democrats” once worked in a kibbutz in Israel, and is a former federal tax attorney, a small business owner, the biological mother of five children and, at one point a foster mother of 23 teenage girls.

She used to be an active Democrat, once working on the Jimmy Carter campaign before a personal epiphany that occurred while reading “Burr” by Gore Vidal convinced her she was, in her heart of hearts, a Republican.

But this charitable, even spiritual aspect of her past somehow manages to stay under the same cerebral roof with her more goofily provocative, willfully inartful, passionately ideological side. This is the Michele Bachmann who said in October 2008 that she was concerned that President Obama “may have anti-American values.” This is the same representative who walked that back, and that effectively said it again, on and off, up to March of this year.

The same lawmaker who objected to the scope of the questions in the constitutionally required decennial census. The same person who called for Minnesota citizens to be “armed and dangerous” on opposition to the Obama cap-and-trade taxation policy.

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The same legislator who conjured an army of profligate White House staffers she said were accompanying Obama on his first Asian trip, late in 2010, when in fact the White House entourage was a fraction of the one she fabricated.

The same evangelical federal officer who works with Christian youth ministries, opposes same-sex marriage or any equivalent recognition, and who, in 2004, aligned GLBT Americans collectively with “sexual dysfunction.”

The same member of the House of Representatives who, apparently with a straight face on both occasions, said the United States shouldn’t join the global economy and that the jury’s still out on whether evolution is real or not.

With a lawmaker inhabiting that multitude of personae, wielding that pallet of experiences, you’re excused if you’re inclined to ask the real Michele Bachmann to please stand up, please stand up.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi gets this. “I think she’s both a true believer ... I think that on some level she genuinely believes she has the kind of Joan of Arc-like calling to restore a Christian caliphate in the United States,” said Taibbi (who just wrote a lengthy piece on Bachmann for the magazine) on Wednesday, to Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

“But ... she’s also got this Machiavellian side where she clearly knows when to amp up the craziness and when to tone it down, when to criticize the gay marriage issue and when to forget about it.”

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Taibbi envisions a possible path to the GOP nomination for Bachmann. First she wins Iowa (certainly possible given her fidelity to conservative values and the fact that she was born there) and does so with the help of those who once backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Bachmann’s presumed leverage? “The Tea Party has that king-making role in the party right now,” Taibbi said.

But Taibbi’s forecast makes an implicit assumption that’s as likely to be wrong within the fractured, schizoid Republican party as it would be in the universe of the wider American population. Taibbi overstates both the centrality of Tea Party principles to the mainstream Republican Party and Bachmann’s lock on importance to the Tea Party as the best communicator of those principles.

Give or take, Bachmann shares many of the same foundational beliefs as Romney and Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza CEO who’s lately wowed the Tea Party faithful. Other candidates have pledged loyalty to Tea Party tenets. They can’t all win the nomination.

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And for all her loopy Tea Party appeal, for all the messianic zeal she’s apparently prepared to summon in this quest for the White House, Bachmann’s negatives remain a powerful thing.

She’s trailed by ad hominem, McCarthyite distortions of President Obama, endearing her to the Tea Party sect and no one else; she’s complicated the public’s understanding of her with elaborate, revisionist thinking on climate change and evolution; and her command of American history and geography has been, let’s say, less than sure-footed (confusing Massachusetts and New Hampshire when discussing the American Revolution isn’t helpful).

She whiffed on the history of her childhood home town. In an interview with NBC News, Bachmann said she aligned herself with the values of another Waterloo resident, the actor and conservative icon John Wayne. Only he wasn’t; Wayne hailed from Winterset, about 150 miles away. It’s thought that Bachmann really meant John Wayne Gacy, the infamous serial killer of 33 people.

Then she did it again the next damn day. In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulus on Tuesday, Bachmann said that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founding Fathers who worked to end slavery in America. Even after Stephanopoulus corrected her, Bachmann dug in her heels and insisted she was right. Which she wasn’t, of course: John Quincy was the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. That Founding Father.

Maybe she was thinking of John Gacy Adams.

All of which has led to a suspicion that, Bachmann’s strong performance at the Saint Anselm College debate notwithstanding, there’s not enough there there.

Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post said as much after her solid performance at the Saint Anselm College GOP candidates’ debate on June 20. “Everybody made a big deal of Michele Bachmann, but the bar was kinda low,” he said on MSNBC. “The fact they could actually stick to their brief was seen as the greatest rhetorical triumph since Churchill. Let’s get serious."

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Fineman hints at an early challenge, inanimate but real, for the Bachmann campaign: the exportability of her appeal.

It’s one thing to be Queen of the May in your own private Idaho; it’s quite another thing to convince independent voters and moderate Republicans that you warrant the party’s nomination. It’s a third thing altogether to convince the average American voter in a general election that you, above anyone else, deserve to lead the national parade.

There’s the rub for the Bachmann campaign: exporting her populism from the friendly confines and amen corners of the primary states to a broader appeal among a national electorate, millions of voters just as inimical to her party, or her political world view, as she is to theirs.

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There are early signs in her favor. A day or two before her announcement, a Des Moines Register Republican presidential preference poll put Bachmann at 22 percent, one percentage point behind the frontrunner for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — outpointing other, better-capitalized candidates despite being a latecomer to the field.

More importantly, Bachmann’s got the thought leaders and analysts seriously pulling their chins. Former RNC chairman Michael Steele’s among them. “She has a core base of support out there that she can bring to the table, that’s her deliverable,” said Steele, now an MSNBC analyst.

Arne Carlson would agree. Carlson, a former Minnesota Republican governor told MSNBC that “I think she’s always been an underestimated candidate … She and I are not on the same philosophical page ... but in terms of the ability to communicate, to sell a message, to inspire an audience, she is as good a candidate as there is in the Republican field ...”

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Right now, that may be praise with faint damnation. The current field has left many Republicans deeply underwhelmed. The idea that Bachmann is at the top of the heap of a crop of candidates seen as the bottom of the barrel isn’t necessarily a huge plus in her favor.

Before Bachmann got in the race, many Republicans were waiting for a better choice. Now that she’s in officially, those same Republicans may still be looking around. And why not? Texas Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t made up his mind yet, and there’ve even been faint deus ex machina whispers of the name of Jeb Bush. Bachmann’s prospects may depend on the size of the field of challengers as much as anything else.

But Bachmann gets credit for savvy positioning. Her long standing as a lawmaker and her elevation as a Tea Party champion with skin in the legislative game give her a decided advantage over former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose presumed flirtation with a 2012 campaign is getting more tiresome all the time. And Bachmann gets credit for timing; her formal announcement gives an emotional jump-start, a jolt of life to a field of contenders that could use a serious transfusion of 5-Hour Energy.

Seven months before the caucuses is a long time, and questions remain about what she’s really capable of. It’s still to be seen, for example, whether her vote on raising the federal debt ceiling will position her as a genuinely pragmatic, charismatic, diamond-in-the-rough leader or as just another copy machine for the far right.

The Bachmann campaign bus is moving, in a kind of overdrive; it's picking up speed, but it's cheap speed, acceleration by virtue of the bus' momentum, not speed generated of its own power. Not yet.

The good news right now for Michele Bachmann? She’s captured lightning in a bottle. The bigger concern? The real storm hasn’t even started yet.

Image credits: Bachmann logo: Bachmann 2011 campaign Web site. Bachmann crowd shot: Associated Press. Gacy: 1978 booking photo.

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