Commentary Magazine


Riding the Bachmann Roller Coaster

When a presidential candidate learns she is holding on to her slim lead in polling for Iowa’s first in the nation caucus, you’d be hard pressed to characterize it as a bad day. But along with the good news from Rasmussen about Iowa, Michele Bachmann learned Rick Perry will seek to overshadow her hoped-for victory in the Ames straw poll by scheduling the presumed announcement of his candidacy on the same day. She was also the subject of an unflattering profile in Newsweek and an even lengthier hit job in The New Yorker that were both published today.

While the two articles can be interpreted as yet another sign Bachmann is a sufficiently important enough conservative for the liberal media to seek her destruction, the Perry announcement will be a signal her quick ascent to the top tier of the GOP field will be followed by a tough battle to stay there.

Bachmann and Perry both represent the synthesis of a new breed of conservatives who mix socially conservative religious views with a strain of Tea Party libertarianism. Despite occasional gaffes, Bachmann’s performance has shown her to be head and shoulders above most of the field when it comes to not only campaign skills but in connecting with voters. Perry’s record of success, both in terms of politics and economic performance in Texas, is already established. While he seems like the more formidable of the two, he will have to prove that on the stump.

Though Perry has been subjected to intense scrutiny by the press in Texas, especially by liberal gadflies in Austin, he is yet to be put under the microscope of the national media the way Bachmann has been in the last couple of months. The Newsweek and New Yorker stories about Bachmann represent two different approaches to the task of trashing a conservative.

The Newsweek piece is a more straightforward attack on the candidate that takes the point of view Bachman is merely the embodiment of Tea Party extremism. It treats the assumption–shared by many Americans–that government is too big and the massive entitlements bankrupting our states and cities as well as the federal government must be reformed before we are all sunk, as a form of extremism that is basically crazy. While Bachmann will have to account for her absolutist position on the debt ceiling, this is an attempt to brand the views of a large chunk of the electorate as crazy. That’s not exactly an argument that will damage Bachmann with Republicans or even most voters of either party.

On the other hand, the New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza wastes little time trying to debunk the Tea Party. Instead, he concentrates his fire on the candidate herself, seeking to tie her to every right-wing radical idea or scholar she has ever read or studied under. This is exactly the sort of attack decried as scurrilous when the same methods were applied to Barack Obama and his left-wing connections when he was running four years ago.

Some of these revelations do pose some serious questions. If she makes it to the later primaries or the general election, she’ll have to explain her views about church and state in such a way as to assure those who don’t share her particular religious beliefs that her views of the Constitution are well within the legal and political mainstream.

But most of the anecdotes collected by Lizza aren’t likely to cause Bachmann much discomfort. Neither her fight to establish a charter school or her background as a conservative activist yield the sort of biographical nuggets that might disqualify her for high office. As for her personal life, the fact some fellow IRS employees resented she took pregnancy leave twice while working for the government is more politically incorrect than anything Bachmann has ever said. The only one of her 23 foster children that Lizza was able to track down gave her a glowing endorsement. If the worst thing said of her personally is she doesn’t want to be photographed when dressed informally (as Lizza tells it, that’s the main rule for journalists who ride the Bachmann campaign plane), she’ll pass inspection.

Rick Perry may be planning on stealing Bachmann’s thunder on Saturday, and he may well do it. But the Newsweek and New Yorker profiles are merely two more indications Bachmann is a serious Republican contender. Whether her associations will hurt in a general election campaign is a question for another day. But anyone, including Rick Perry, who underestimates her appeal to conservatives is making a mistake.

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