Commentary Magazine


Purity Makes Good Politics

Politics may be the art of the possible, but while demonstrating flexibility is important for a legislator it can be a drawback to winning elections. That’s why Michele Bachmann’s first television advertisement to be broadcast in Iowa is smart politics even if it may not be the smartest policy. During the course of her ad, Bachmann not only brags of her vote against President Obama’s stimulus plan and the 2008 bailout of financial institutions,but gives a flat promise: “I will not vote to increase the debt ceiling.” That sort of fiscal absolutism may be considered an irresponsible roadblock to genuine compromises, especially if it means she would vote against a debt ceiling bill that would, as House Speaker John Boehner has proposed to the president, enact the sort of genuine tax reform Republicans have wanted to enact for decades.

But as much as such a pledge can’t be considered constructive on Capitol Hill, it is exactly what many Republicans are dying to hear from a presidential candidate. Though some in the GOP, as well as the media, are acting as if the Tea Party movement that drove the Republican midterm election victory in 2010 is a passing craze, it is not. Many grass roots Republicans are worried this Republican Congress will succumb to the blandishments of the Washington establishment the way their predecessors who were defeated in 2006 did. Bachmann’s promise, rather than Boehner’s proposed compromise, is a guarantee that won’t happen even if means passing up an opportunity to do something constructive.

The political value of Bachmann’s purity shouldn’t be underestimated. As Chris Cillizza wrote in today’s Washington Post, unlike most members of Congress, Bachmann’s legislative record is no burden to her candidacy. During her five years in Congress, Bachmann has not devoted any effort to “going along to get along” as most members must do in order to pass legislation. She has not brought home any “bacon” to her district because she viewed her purpose very differently than her colleagues. Instead of log rolling with other members to gain passage of pet legislation, she has spent all of her time “tilting at windmills” and generally running afoul of her party’s leadership.

Many members of the GOP establishment, including fellow members of the Republican congressional caucus, probably rolled their eyes when they saw her Iowa ad. But those who view her record on the Hill as one of failure which ought to render her candidacy quixotic, don’t get it. Her purity may make her irrelevant in Washington, but it is exactly the ticket for pleasing movement conservatives who are disgusted with the pragmatic measures getting things done requires. Far from hurting Bachmann’s chances, this attitude helps her immeasurably.

In fact, if her congressional record resembles anyone’s, it’s that of Barack Obama, who coasted through his three-plus years in the Senate with no object in mind but the presidency. That ought to scare the dickens out of the rest of the GOP presidential field.