There was a moment two years ago when Representative Michele Bachmann looked like she had a realistic chance to be a first-tier Republican presidential candidate. In the spring and summer of 2011, Bachmann seemed to be the favorite of Tea Party voters and her strong showing at the first debates indicated that she could emerge from the pack as the person who could mobilize social conservatives as well as anti-tax rebels and give mainstream frontrunner Mitt Romney a run for his money. Indeed, when she showed the organizational heft that allowed her to win the straw poll in Ames, Iowa that August she knocked former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty out of the race and seemed poised for a long and possibly significant presidential campaign.
But that was her high point, and from there her candidacy, if not her celebrity, went into a steep decline. Not only did she not win the actual Iowa caucus the following January, she finished so far down in the standings that she dropped out the next day. The Michele Bachmann moment in our national political history was so short that even though it happened less than two years ago, it’s hard even for some political junkies to remember it. The news today that Bachmann won’t run for re-election to Congress next year is a reminder for both politicians and journalists of the enduring wisdom to be found in not getting so caught up in what is happening in each segment of the 24/7 news cycle that they lose perspective on things or people that turn out to be flashes in the pan rather than have staying power. While no one should assume that we’ve heard the last of Bachmann, her exit from office illustrates just how fleeting such moments can be. And that’s something the next crop of GOP presidential contenders, including current Tea Party idol Ted Cruz, should remember.
Why did Bachmann fade so quickly? The answer is simple. There aren’t many hard and fast rules in politics that apply to all situations, but surely one of them is to avoid ridicule.
Bachmann’s penchant for saying whatever came into her head caught up with her. She got labeled as the candidate who made the loony comment about a vaccine against sexually transmitted diseases causing mental retardation. She had genuine charisma as well as a better grasp on many issues than better known and funded candidates (need we mention Rick Perry?), but the more America got to know her, the less it took her seriously. Her fans can blame that on the mainstream media’s liberal bias, but the fault was hers. Where once she looked to be about to replace Sarah Palin as the La Passionara of the Tea Party movement, she wound up just looking ridiculous. There are few examples of politicians recovering from that malady, though Anthony Weiner is giving that principle a run for its money this year.
The speculation about why Bachmann is not running for re-election needn’t detain us long. Her protestations that her decision was unrelated to the ongoing investigations into the financing of her campaign or fears of winning re-election ring hollow. Since she was already running ads for 2014, it’s clear the baggage she carried endangered her chances of winning a seat that she had only barely held onto last November. By leaving now before taking another chance on losing in an overwhelmingly Republican district, she preserves her options for the future. She can be become a popular figure on the conservative lecture circuit or a talk show host.
But what Bachmann taught us in 2011 is that the gap between being a celebrated congressional dissident whose antics delighted the conservative base and someone who can actually challenge for the nomination of a national party is not so narrow as some politicians think. The crop of 2016 GOP contenders seems to be a lot deeper and more serious than the 2012 roster, but what happened to Bachmann should be considered an object lesson for people like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who appears to be auditioning for the post of leader of the bomb thrower niche of the Republican Party that Bachmann briefly occupied.
You may argue that Cruz is a lot more polished and substantive than Bachmann was, and you might be right–though many forget that she knew what she was talking about when it came to tax policy and the Middle East. But as much as the grass roots is applauding when Cruz calls his Republican colleagues “squishes” and says he doesn’t trust them, the potential for crossing the line into caricature is there too.
Partisans like their politicians to be blunt and give the other side hell. But there is a fine line between that and getting labeled a nut case. Cruz may think he’s cut from a different mold than Bachmann, but he should regard her swift rise and even swifter fall as a warning of just how slippery a business politics can be.