Michele Bachmann: Crazy like a fox

The Minnesota congresswoman gives Sarah Palin a run for her money

It was just after 12:30 a.m. on election night when Michele Bachmann materialized in the cavernous ballroom of the Sheraton hotel in Bloomington. The din of clinking champagne glasses and festive chatter did little to conceal that this was a grim affair. Those gathered were witnessing—in some cases, experiencing—an electoral bloodbath that would strip the GOP of seven seats in the U.S. Senate and 21 in the House. Previously jubilant conservatives sat hunched over their beers and gin-and-tonics in the downstairs bar, in tears during McCain's concession speech. Discarded streamers lay about in sad red, white, and blue heaps.

But Bachmann strolled in with bright eyes shining from her mascara-caked face, looking blissful. In the weeks leading up to that night, she had become a caricature of the more absurdist elements of social conservatism. When she innocently suggested to Hardball host Chris Matthews that the government would do well to investigate "anti-American" congressmen, it outraged everyone to the left of Joseph McCarthy. Donors, in turn, dumped a combined $2 million into the coffers of Democratic challenger Elwyn Tinklenberg.

But it was all for naught. Bachmann emerged unscathed, practically coasting to victory with a 3 percentage-point advantage. Now a scrum of reporters gathered to dutifully record her victory speech. The room fell silent.

"The youth of America is energized!" Bachmann bellowed. "And they're energized by the idea of freedom!"

A cynic dabbling in rudimentary logic might feel compelled to point out that the youth of America had turned out more than two-to-one for the other party. But they'd be missing the point. There was a ubiquitous theme to this election—people under 30 turning out in record numbers—and Bachmann was eager to align herself with the zeitgeist.

This has been the modus operandi of Michele Bachmann. Chart her public statements over the years, and you're left gazing at a madcap Orwellian playground.

All this is to say that most everyone, even Republicans, realizes that her rhetoric doesn't make sense.

But maybe it's not supposed to.

BACHMANN'S POLITICAL CAREER began, fittingly enough, on April Fool's Day, 2000—Census Day, no less.

That afternoon, Bachmann, then a tax-litigation attorney, arrived at the Republican Senate District 56 convention in Stillwater, wearing jeans, moccasins, and a sweater. For the past few months, Bachmann, along with some allies from her days on the Stillwater School Board, had mounted a concerted effort to oust 28-year incumbent Gary Laidig, a politically moderate Vietnam vet. Bachmann and company were incensed that Laidig had supported the Profile of Learning, graduation requirements that incensed conservatives.

As she entered the bustling lobby that day, Bachmann had no intention of walking away the nominee; she explained later that she hadn't even applied makeup that morning.

But as the votes were tallied, it became clear a modest mutiny was afoot. Delegate after delegate went for Bachmann. As this was happening, Laidig approached Tony Sutton, then the state GOP's executive director, with an impassioned plea.

"You gotta do something!" he implored.

But there was nothing to be done. By day's end, Bachmann had trounced Laidig, 68 percent to 32.

"Michele was a fresh face," says Sutton. "She was likeable. I've never seen a state candidate come out with so many volunteers."

Bachmann was still a relative unknown even in Minnesota, never mind nationally. That would soon change. Encouraged by socially conservative activists who saw her as one of their own, Bachmann courted the spotlight, modest though it was.

Her unofficial coming-out party arrived on March 22, 2004, during an otherwise perfunctory committee hearing. One of the bills, still in committee, would ban same-sex marriages in Minnesota.

That afternoon, thousands of anti-gay-marriage demonstrators had converged on the State Capitol grounds in support of the bill, which wouldn't be voted on until later that week at the earliest. About 100 of these activists filed inside the Capitol building and took their place in the Senate gallery overlooking the proceedings.

With a crowd on hand, Bachmann issued a motion to bypass the committee and have the floor vote on the bill right then and there—a highly unusual move in state Senate proceedings. Even more bizarre: While she was making her case, she addressed not the Senate floor as per protocol, but the gallery above.

Don Betzold, chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time, remembers being stunned by her behavior.

"It was quite irritating—and unusual—that she tried to rouse the crowd in that gallery," Betzold says. "The reason she made that motion that particular day, instead of another, was because there were a lot people up there that were supportive of her. She wasn't even arguing the motion at hand. She was arguing the merits of same-sex marriage."

The incident served as a portent to Bachmann's spotlight-seeking.

FLASH-FORWARD FIVE YEARS. Having outgrown the statehouse, Bachmann is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Bachmann has found a platform on Fox News and is a regular on the Glenn Beck Show. According to Smart Politics, the University of Minnesota's nonpartisan political blog, Bachmann was appearing on cable news shows every nine days on average.

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