8:52am

Thu January 27, 2011
Opinion

The Nation: Bachmann Would Be A Shaky Contender

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann made more noise and raised more money than any other backbencher in the House Republican Caucus during the 2010 election cycle. She even picked her own slate of Senate candidates — Tea Party-aligned outsiders who were at odds with the party leadership — and raised money for them. After the votes were counted and Republicans took charge of the House, Bachmann made her demand. She wanted a leadership role.

Bachmann started campaigning for the chairmanship of the party's suddenly-enlarged caucus in the House, the No. 4 GOP leadership position in the chamber. It was the first Tea Party bid for a top post, but soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner, soon-to-be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and soon-to-be House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy made it quite clear that Bachmann wasn't their candidate for the post. "Moving forward, I believe that there is no better choice than Jeb Hensarling to serve as the next Chairman of the House Republican Conference," announced Cantor, who added what a lot of analysts took as a jab at Bachmann: "Our majority must produce results…"

Bachmann got the message that there was no place for her in the formal leadership of the House. So she quit the race.

But she did not accept defeat. She simply shifted focus … to the presidential race of 2012.

If she could not be a House leader, Bachmann would go around the leaders and make a bigger name for herself — and, perhaps, displace Sarah Palin as the political face of the Tea Party movement.

On State of the Union night, the image-obsessed, communication-savvy congresswoman grabbed the spotlight from her fellow Republicans — aided by cable networks such as CNN that broadcast her remarks in full, as if she was an official responder — from the very Republican leaders who tried to push her to the sidelines.

The party's chosen spokesman, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, (R-WI) had to compete not just with a resurgent Barack Obama but with Bachmann for the attention of the American people.

So how did the nightmare scenario for Ryan and the Republican leadership play out?

Ryan offered a stylistically — if not quite factually — credible response to Obama. Smart and smooth, he made none of the missteps that wrecked previous State of the Union responses by the likes of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He sugarcoated the foulest pieces of the GOP agenda — privatization of Social Security and the crushing of the Medicare and Medicaid programs — and got his message across as effectively as any responder ever does. But his speech was short of Reagan-esque optimism and long on numbers. He sounded a bit more like a high school economics teacher than a match for the president.

Then came Bachmann, who stepped to a podium afforded her by the Tea Party Express and served the faithful some of the red-meat Republicanism they were longing for after a night of lectures from Professors Obama and Ryan.

On style points and substance, Bachmann was shaky. At times, she seemed to be struggling to figure out which camera she was talking to. (Memo to SNL writers: Bachmann's bumbles beat Palin's anyday.) Nothing about her ramble through the standard talking points of the Republican right was going to appeal to wavering independents. And Democrats who tuned in for laughs and shock appeal. But the Tea Party base, which is a real force in the Republican Party now, got just what it wanted: wild ruminations about assaults on the Constitution, "Obamacare" and "job-killing" weatherization programs.

Bachmann didn't suggest that Obama was born in Indonesia, or that the president might be turning the White House into a Marxist reeducation camp. She didn't need to. She was the champion of the edgy activists who actually show up at Iowa precinct caucuses on mid-winter nights, and she was sharing the national platform on State of the Union night. At NPR's website, the headline read: "Transcripts And Audio: Obama, Ryan, Bachmann."

Obama, Ryan and not Sarah Palin.

Obama, Ryan and Michelle Bachmann.

With Palin's star tarnished, Bachmann was exactly where she wanted — and needed — to be on the night that in so many senses the 2012 presidential race was beginning.

The congresswoman appeared not so much as a responder to the president as a challenger, who did not hesitate to portray the Tea Party movement as redemptive for both the Republican Party and the nation:

"Last November, many of you went to the polls and voted out big-spending politicians, and you put in their place men and women who have come to Washington with a commitment to follow the Constitution and cut the size of government," the congresswoman chirped. "We are in the early days of a history-making turn here in the House of Representatives."

No one should doubt that Bachmann intends to be in the thick of that history making.

She spent last weekend in Iowa; she does nothing to detract from talk of her as a presidential prospect, and now she has positioned herself as the Tea Party alternative to Obama and (relatively) more mainstream Republicans.

That does not mean that she is a certain contender for the Republican presidential nod.

But it does mean that she will be in the mix, and that's going to cause Republican leaders in the House and nationally the sort of headache that comes from attending too many Tea Parties. Copyright 2011 The Nation. To see more, visit http://www.thenation.com/.

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