WASHINGTON – The questions about Michele Bachmann abound: Is she merely a pale copy of Sarah Palin? Is she smart? Are her views extreme?
The answers are easy: no, yes and yes.
The 55-year-old Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, who is seeking to become the first sitting member of the House to win a major party’s presidential nomination since James Garfield in 1880, is the flavor du jour of national politics, dominating magazine covers, punditry talk shows and the chatter of the political class.
Michele-mania in conservative Republican ranks only will soar with her victory in the Iowa Straw Poll. Whether this really is a good guide to the outcome of the race – it has a mixed record – she instantly is the favorite in the Iowa Caucuses, which kick off the presidential contest early next year.
Usually, politicians embrace important movements. Bachmann was part of the culturally conservative religious movement before she became a politician. She declared herself a born-again Christian at 16, attended Oral Roberts Law School, an evangelical institution, and was an activist against abortion and gay rights before her first run for political office in 2000. Her ability to rouse socially conservative crowds springs from her instincts and convictions, not calculation.
“She’s the real deal, there’s nothing phony about her,” says former Minnesota representative Tim Penny, a Democrat turned independent. “She’s smarter than most people give her credit for.”
She is reasonably well-versed, or at least commands the bullet points, and is quick on her feet. It’s tough to imagine Bachmann getting tripped up when asked what she reads or what Supreme Court decisions she dislikes, as Palin, a former Alaska governor, did in an interview with Katie Couric of CBS in 2008.
“Michele Bachmann is a much better candidate than Sarah Palin,” says David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s top strategist and a close observer of the Republican contest.
Although for most of her career she’s been identified with cultural and social conservative issues, especially the right-to-life movement, Bachmann now stresses the economy, and her positions are equally conservative. She wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 9 percent from 35 percent, enact other business tax breaks, and eliminate all levies on capital gains and estates. She favors a mandatory balanced budget.
This would require Draconian spending reductions, and Bachmann says she would cut benefits for any future Medicare and Social Security recipients. Unlike most other Republicans, she pledged in an interview last week to “reform entitlements now, not five years from now.”
More than her positions, however, what is most striking about the three-term lawmaker are the personal contradictions. She has an ability to mesmerize audiences with her presence while also making frequent careless misstatements. Campaigning in New Hampshire, she extolled the state’s patriotism, which said stretched back to the Revolutionary War battles of Concord and Lexington. Those battles took place in Massachusetts. She’s made many inaccurate statements about Obama.
She is genuinely compassionate; in addition to their five biological children, the Bachmanns have helped parent 23 foster children. She also can be mean, particularly when talking about gays or lesbians; her husband’s clinic reportedly has a program to “convert” homosexuals to a straight lifestyle. She says, however, that she could appoint a qualified gay or lesbian to her Cabinet.
Like all major Republicans today, she talks in glowing terms of Ronald Reagan, with whom she actually has little in common.
“She has such certitude of her ideology and positions that she doesn’t see nuance or room for compromise – the other side is always wrong,” Penny says. “Reagan found a way to compromise on a whole range of issues, without being accused of selling out. She is not in that league.”
She has a history of embracing radical, conspiratorial, even loony ideas. A recent article in the New Yorker magazine cited her adoption of mentors or role models who championed the Confederacy, and implicitly slavery, during the Civil War.
Woven through much of this is the notion that the Bible is inerrant and America is a Christian nation.
Yet she has an ease in deflecting controversies that’s unusual for a rigid ideologue. When Vin Weber – a former Minnesota congressman who backed Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who pulled out of the race Sunday – was criticized for saying that she had political “sex appeal,” Bachmann called him and joked, “When you’re 55 and someone says you have sex appeal, you take it as a compliment.”
Almost no leading strategist of either party envisions the possibility of a President Bachmann. The conventional wisdom is that she’ll soon be eclipsed by Saturday’s entry into the Republican field of Rick Perry, the conservative Texas governor.
In Minnesota as in Washington, however, it’s usually been a mistake to underestimate her. The prospects that Bachmann will win the nomination are slim, but the odds that she’ll help shape the race and the agenda are much higher.
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.