Two recent profiles of Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann — one from Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker and another from The Daily Beast’s Lois Romano — shed some light on the contradictory nature of her campaign: She’s used the rock-solid support of the far-right to build a serious campaign, but she has only maintained their loyalty by spouting beliefs (see: calling Democratic members of Congress “un-American,” dire warnings about the homosexual agenda) that make her seem like a visitor from the political fringe.
Bachmann sent a strong message that she must be reckoned with during the June 13 presidential debate in New Hampshire, impressing the political chattering class with a mix of certainty — she was willing to openly say that she would not vote for the debt ceiling — and made-for-TV polish . Lizza argues that Bachmann’s success there “was mainly the result of her clear enunciation of Tea Party talking points,” and Romano agrees that “when others meandered or waffled, she shot back with answers that reduced Washington’s dysfunctional gridlock to understandable soundbites.”
Bachmann’s statements often cross the line from understandable to deeply puzzling, however. Lizza’s profile picks out some of her greatest hits:
In the spring of 2009, during what appeared to be the beginnings of a swine-flu epidemic, Bachmann said, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is “personal enslavement,” and that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, “little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it.” Speaking about gay-rights activists, that same year, she said, “It is our children that is the prize for this community.”
In “Christianity and the Constitution,” the book she worked on with [John Eidsmoe,] her law-school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams “expressed their abhorrence for the institution” and explains that “many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. “It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.”
Extremely controversial statements such as these have helped Bachmann’s campaign capture countless headlines and many fanatical followers within the Tea Party movement. In a Republican primary where a sizable percentage of the electorate at least until recently didn’t believe that Barack Obama is a legitimate American citizen, much less a legitimate president, Bachmann’s willingness to play to the far-right wing has positioned her as the chief challenger to Mitt Romney’s more conventional bid for the nomination.
But while playing to the Tea Party has made Bachmann a player in the race for the GOP nomination, it may end up killing her chances of actually reaching the White House. In a recently released New York Times/CBS News poll, 40 percent of those polled characterized their view of the Tea Party as “not favorable;” that number is a sharp increase from the 18 percent “not favorable” respondents indicated in an April poll. This is an obvious hurdle for the woman who many have dubbed as the “Tea Party Queen.”
Furthermore, some on the right are beginning to question whether or not Bachmann’s record matches her rhetoric. Romano writes:
Democrats—and some of Bachmann’s Republican opponents—have noted the gulf between her rhetoric and record. She earned a federal salary as a lawyer for the IRS (an agency despised by the Tea Party), for example. Pressed on whether she took Americans to court to force them to pay back taxes, she answers carefully. “Our employer was the United States Department of Treasury. That’s who paid my salary,” she says. “And the client that we represented was the IRS.” She also says that the job opened her eyes to the “huge bureaucracy and how devastating high taxes are on almost every sector of the economy… farmers and families and small businesses and individuals.Bachmann owned a stake in her father-in-law’s farm that received more than $250,000 in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2008. She says that money all stayed with her in-laws. In Congress, she tried to secure more than $3.7 million in federal earmarks for her district–the kind of pet projects she has blamed for excessive spending. And she railed against Obama’s $800 billion–plus Recovery Act as wasteful, then signed a half-dozen letters seeking stimulus funds for local projects. Her requests in 2009 echoed the arguments Republicans lampooned Obama for using. A bridge project could create nearly 3,000 jobs a year, Bachmann wrote, while a highway project would “promote economic prosperity.”
As Bachmann deploys hard-right rhetoric to bring her closer to the nomination, moderate and independent voters will become more nervous about the prospect of her in the White House, and Republicans, known for settling on establishment-approved picks who have earned their party’s nod, may reject her, too.