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.

"In both a literal and figurative sense, she's become the face of the far-right movement," says Democratic strategist Donald MacFarland. "She's practically a regular contributor to some of these shows. If nothing else, she's a fantastic self-promoter."

Where Democrats see naked publicity-mongering, Republicans see a rhetorical brawler capable of raising awareness and eyebrows—not to mention cash.

"I don't think she has any weaknesses," says Bill Pulkrabek, Bachmann's former campaign manager, now a Washington County commissioner. "DFL activists are blinded by their hatred for this woman. That's because she's not afraid to throw gas on the fire. She's not afraid to whip up our side."

In doing so, Bachmann has resorted, at times, to misinformation. In June, she told the conservative Washington Times that embroiled community group ACORN would receive federal money to help perform the next Census count, which was untrue. In April, Bachmann all but blamed President Obama for personally dosing the American public with the H1N1 virus, telling an interviewer that she found it interesting that "it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter." In fact, the scare came about during the Ford administration. More recently, she worried aloud on the House floor that health-care reform would allow 13-year-olds to be "taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus that night." Again, not true.

But there's a market for her brand of rhetoric—she's regarded in some Sixth District circles as something of a folk hero, a status that ensured her survival through two of the most GOP-antagonistic election cycles in American history.

"Though demonized by some on the left, my ideas are good, old-fashioned Minnesota common sense," Bachmann told City Pages in response to a written questionnaire, the only way she would agree to answer questions. "Every day I hear from constituents letting me know that I have their support, while my office gets calls from across the nation urging me to keep up the fight."

Those who've worked with the congresswoman over the years laugh off the caricature of her as crazy. They describe a savvy politician in full control of her faculties.

"If you look at it from a purely political standpoint, would you say she's been successful?" says State Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge), who served as Bachmann's campaign director during the '08 election. "The answer is obviously yes. It works."

BACHMANN'S WILLINGNESS TO stake out the fringe might be electorally counterproductive if were it not for her unique constituency.

Minnesota's oblong Sixth District is shaped somewhat like a giant slug devouring—or excreting, depending on where your sympathies lie—the Twin Cities metro. The gerrymandered perimeter encircles a population that is 96 percent white with a high rate of church attendance. With a median income of around $57,000, the district is fairly wealthy, yet modest enough to retain an anti-"elitist" streak. In short, it's exactly the kind of place Sarah Palin might call the "real America." Property that just a decade ago consisted of endless farmland is now dotted with strip malls and mega churches. It's precisely this exurban growth that renders the district more right-leaning than even the most rural of areas outstate.

"That's because people in the exurbs tend to be tax-stressed," says Steve Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College. "The cost of commuting, the cost of housing, and so forth make them very tax-sensitive, and that tends to drive voters in the direction of anti-tax candidates."

Minnesota's Sixth, in other words, is reliable GOP territory. That grants Bachmann a long leash when it comes to her rhetoric. Like a queen on a chessboard, she's able take her argument in pretty much any direction, no matter how absurd.

"I think she's good for the GOP on a national level in that Republican activists relate to her," says Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based Republican political consultant. "And while they might wince now and again at what she says, she does so forcefully and articulately."

Bachmann, in other words, is a fundraiser's wet dream. The process works like this: 1) Bachmann spouts something spectacularly insane on national television, which reverberates inside the mass media's echo chamber; 2) a simple fact-check by someone with access to Google reveals her to be completely full of it, thus intensifying the backlash; 3) the GOP's fundraising apparatus disseminates mass emails framing the Bachmann-directed hostility as yet another example of the leftist media trying to destroy what remains of the Real America, and how will you explain that to your grandchildren when they're in the internment camps?; 4) conservatives' wallets open.

This is precisely what happened a year ago after Bachmann suggested on Hardball that then-presidential candidate Obama and other Democrats might hold "anti-American views." The National Republican Congressional Committee rallied the far-right base, sending emails to core constituents accusing the "mainstream media" of "attacking" Bachmann.

Of course, there's a downside to all this rabble-rousing. First, and most obviously, Bachmann's challenger, Tinklenberg, got a late fundraising push of his own. The $500,000 that flooded his coffers in the ensuing five days trumped the $313,000 he had raised in the prior five weeks.

But more importantly, many worry that those and similar remarks are detrimental to the national Republican Party's credibility, which is why not everyone inside the GOP is thrilled at the prospect of Bachmann becoming the face of their party. One senior Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, concedes that there's some trepidation within the GOP establishment.

"I can tell you she has a few quiet detractors within the Republican Party," says the strategist. "Put it this way: There've been some who've raised an eyebrow over the things she's said."

Nevertheless, GOP higher-ups have shown no effort to muzzle Bachmann, which suggests she fills an important role. Looking on the other side of the political aisle, the DFL, for all its squawking about Bachmann, has benefitted financially from her ravings as well.

"There are certainly people inside the DFL who think she's good for the party," says Jeremy Powers, a DFL chair in Bachmann's district. "Some think fighting for the Sixth District isn't worth it, because the sum advantage of having her around is better than ousting her."

It's a point DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez concedes but doesn't endorse.

"While obviously I like being able to raise money against Republican candidates, and while I like for there to be a convenient boogeyman like her, the price of having an ineffective representative for an entire congressional district is just too high."

ON A CRISP, CLOUDLESS EVENING in late September, about 2,000 conservatives gathered inside Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus to take part in a town hall meeting that, a year before, might have been the premise of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Here was Bachmann sharing the stage with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the controversial 2008 presidential candidate. Tonight's topic: the Federal Reserve's role in America's allegedly parasitic monetary policy.

Eager to align herself with Paul's grassroots, anti-Fed movement, Bachmann did her damndest to bring him to Minnesota. And now, wearing a pink overcoat and lipstick smile, she launched into her introductory speech.

"The foundation of all our conversations is liberty," she said, "and how we can give more liberty back into the hands of the people!"

Bachmann and Paul make strange bedfellows. In advocating a war against Iran, Bachmann once infamously claimed to know of a secret plan by Tehran to partition Iraq; Paul advocates not only withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also shutting down all American military bases across the globe. Bachmann is one of the most socially conservative members of Congress; Paul is constantly jabbering about keeping the government out of people's "lifestyles," which, to him, includes sexual orientation and drug use.

Marriages of convenience are commonplace in politics, but this one struck many as particularly counterintuitive. The Daily Beast dubbed it the "Craziest Town Hall Ever."

"What I think she's doing here is trying to broaden her base," says Schier, the Carleton professor. "There are a number of libertarian-style conservatives in that district who aren't reliably Republican, and she's trying to appeal to them. Whether she'll succeed remains to be seen, because there are some significant agenda differences at play."

You could see that chasm in the crowd assembled in the auditorium. At one point, a shaggy red-haired college student wearing a black anarcho-capitalist T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses plodded up the aisle. He stepped aside to let a family heading in the opposite direction through. They were clearly here to watch Bachmann—the mother had a three-by-five-foot Bachmann placard in tow.

But as Paul continued to fume onstage about the military-industrial complex and the folly of the Drug War—Bachmann sitting to the side politely clapping—some attendees, particularly those holding Bachmann signs, looked like they didn't know whether to cheer or mount a citizens' arrest.

The gathering served as a snapshot of a party at a crossroads. By the end of the night, you got the impression that no one, not even party stalwarts, knew where the hell the Republicans were going. But whatever the case, one also walked out with an inescapable suspicion that Bachmann might just factor prominently into the equation.

THE GENERAL CONSENSUS AMONG political observers is that the 2010 congressional elections will be favorable to the GOP. And the conventional wisdom holds that if Bachmann can survive the 2006 and 2008 bloodbaths, she can survive anything.

But there's reason for hope for the two DFLers challenging Bachmann. Money is flowing to her rivals in amounts that dwarf previous efforts. The challengers themselves both gamely describe themselves as moderate Democrats.

First we have Maureen Reed, a former internal-medicine doctor who plans to make health-care reform the defining issue of the campaign.

"What I disagree with most," she says of Bachmann, "is that she injects fear and anger into very complicated issues. People just don't problem-solve well when they're fearful and angry."

In the other corner you have state Sen. Tarryl Clark, a DFL up-and-comer who, by virtue of having nabbed labor union endorsements, appears to be the frontrunner. Like Reed, she might be handicapped by an overreliance on wonky pragmatism in a district that seems to perennially reward folksy pathos.

"If you're looking to fire someone, you need a reason," she says of the incumbent. "She's not doing her job. She's not helping to secure Medicare, or lowering tuition, or ensuring health care for veterans. 'No' is not an answer. You have to be willing to work toward a solution."

Thanks to Bachmann's full rotation as a Worst Person in the World on MSNBC's Countdown, Reed now boasts $310,000 cash in hand, and raised $134,935 in the third quarter. For her part, Clark raked in $308,000 in the first nine weeks alone. Both challengers have outpaced Tinklenberg's 2007 fundraising efforts—a latecomer to the race, he had raised $133,000 by this point last election cycle.

Meanwhile, all the television appearances and controversy-mongering are paying dividends for Bachmann as well. She's raised more money from individuals than any of the other eight sitting Minnesota representatives—85 percent of her $800,000, according to data compiled by Smart Politics.

One thing both her detractors and supporters agree on: As Bachmann's national prominence rises, so too do the chances of her pursuing higher office.

"I was kinda surprised she took a pass on taking a shot at the governor's mansion this go-round," says Bill Pulkrabek, her former district manager. "She's got rock-star status in our party. I wouldn't be surprised if she ran for Senate or governor down the road."

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