Nov 19, 2010 4 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Her Republican colleagues made clear, over and over again, she would not have a seat at the new House majority’s extended leadership table. Rep. Michele Bachmann, they whispered, is too loud, too unruly, too tea party.
But as the Minnesota Republican strode out of the Capitol the other day and onto a leaf-strewn grassy park to rally a few hundred tea party activists, it was undeniable that she was their leader. If Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is the commander of the 240-odd Republicans who will be seated in the 112th Congress, then Bachmann is the ringleader of many of the voters who elected them.
“You are the people who changed the world the first Tuesday in November,” Bachmann told the crowd. “You came out. You rallied. You called. You e-mailed. You faxed. They wouldn’t pick up the phone and you kept it ringing. You’re so persistent. You ran for office. You recruited for office. You donated for people running for office. You phone-banked. You lit-dropped. You leafletted. You persuaded.. . .There’s a chapter in the American history books written just with your name on it.”
And, she added, “the sun is shining down on us because you did it!”
Nevermind that it was so overcast in Washington on this day that the sun could not peek through the clouds. In Bachmann’s Washington, it was nothing but blue skies.
This was Day One of freshman orientation for about 80 new Republicans hungry to do what Bachmann has been preaching for months – to take on Uncle Sam, to slash the debt, to repeal “Obamacare” and to restore the constitutional freedoms that an illegitimate president and his “gangster government” are taking from Americans.
“This is insanity economics – insanity politics – and it’s not representative of who we are and this rich, beautiful legacy of 234 years,” Bachmann said. “There will be a new sheriff in town and this sheriff is going to listen to the American people, and if we don’t, then you better turn us out, too, because it’s all about fidelity – fidelity to the Declaration of Independence, that mission statement, the glorious mission statement, that told us who we are and who we belong to.”
Here was Michele Marie Bachmann in her element – free from the confines of the Capitol and surrounded by adoring supporters, a rogue elephant with a microphone.
With the rise of the tea party movement, the 54-year-old former lawyer has found national fame. Come January, what Bachmann does with the platform her star status provides is an open question. How Boehner and other House leaders respond to her will be critical to the GOP’s sometimes-fraught relationship with the tea party.
Earlier this month, Bachmann tried to solidify her standing by running for a post in the leadership. But other Republicans saw no place for her. She bowed out of the race for House Republican conference chair before the election, clearing the way for the preferred candidate of party elders, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).
When Boehner, Hensarling and seven other newly elected leaders appeared on stage at a news conference Thursday to present themselves as the new face of the GOP, Bachmann, of course, was absent.
Asked later how Bachmann might factor in the party’s future, Hensarling said: “Michele is a very good friend of mine. She’s got my great respect and admiration and hers was a very important voice in this election. I have no doubt that Michele Bachmann’s voice will be heard at the leadership table and will be heard across the nation.”
To Democrats and some establishment Republicans, she is a sometimes-looney purveyor of twisted facts and hyperbole who seems to spend more time on cable TV talk shows than she does in the Capitol. But to the conservative faithful, she is a smart and telegenic leader – think Sarah Palin with a law degree – who fearlessly lends her voice and energy to the cause of restoring America’s greatness.
A mother of five and foster parent to 23, Bachmann has represented for the past four years the middle-class northern suburbs of the Twin Cities and the independent, populist farm towns beyond.
Bachmann raised more for her reelection campaign this year than any other House candidate, bringing in more than $11 million. She was one of the most in-demand Republicans, criss-crossing the country speaking to tea party groups and stumping for conservative candidates.
Bachmann rarely turns down an opportunity to deliver her message (although she denied an interview for this story). She finds a way to keep her TV hits in the news, such as on election night, when she taunted MSNBC’s Chris Matthews by saying: “We’re coming out of our nightmare.. . .I imagine that thrill is probably maybe not quite so tingly on your leg anymore.”
For the past two years, Bachmann and a few allies occupied an empty stage in Washington. But with a new tea-party-powered freshman class coming to town, that stage is getting awfully crowded.
“The competition for media time and message and leverage has shifted dramatically and it’s gotten to be more difficult for Michele Bachmann or me or a number of others to be able to convey a message,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Bachmann ally and fellow tea party firebrand, said in an interview. “That’s going to take a while to settle itself, and it might be that this class is so big and so robust and dynamic there won’t be such a demand for a handful of stalwart conservatives to constantly be pounding away.”
Some other lawmakers who find support in the tea party take umbrage with the role Bachmann has carved out atop the movement. Earlier this year she founded the House Tea Party Caucus and installed herself as chair.
“The tea party is much bigger than one person and it can rub members affiliated with the tea party the wrong way when one member asserts, directly or indirectly, that they speak for the tea party when in fact they don’t,” said a senior aide to one such lawmaker, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Bachmann is trying to establish herself as a mentor to incoming Republican members. “The tea party elected a lot of the freshman class and she’s been a strong leader in the tea party,” Rep.-elect Billy Long (R-Mo.) said. “I haven’t met her yet, but that’ll come out in the wash, as we say.”
Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who won as an underdog against a powerful Democratic veteran in a neighboring district of Bachmann’s, said Bachmann was one of his most loyal supporters.
“She’d call up to say, ‘Chip, keep fighting, keep going,’ ” Cravaack said. “Nobody believed in us in the 8th District, and a call from Michele Bachmann meant a lot to me.”
Cravaack called her “a natural-born leader” and said she would be a powerful voice for novice lawmakers. But other freshmen were more careful in their assessments of Bachmann, who becomes more polarizing as her stature grows.
Asked about Bachmann and whether he considers her as a mentor, Rep.-elect Todd Young (R-Ind.) said: “I’m not a political observer, so I can’t offer an opinion on that. Do I see her as a leader? I just don’t know enough about her.”
What Young and his colleagues do know, however, is that Bachmann has a unique following among an untold number of conservatives in their districts and across the country.
The glue in her connection with people is the way she speaks about them and the country they hope America can someday become. In Bachmann’s world, the sun is always shining, and the people are always inspiring. She speaks of heavenly magistrates and innate greatness, of giving and sacrifice.
When she talks, people respond with passion.
“This was not Astroturf,” Bachmann said of the tea party at the recent rally in Washington.
“Noooo!” the crowd replied.
“This was not a group of toothless hillbillies who had no idea what they were talking about.”
“These weren’t angry, hateful people.”
“These are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.”
“Ohhh, we are!”