Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Enter Michele Bachmann

As a national journalist and columnist who happens to live in Minnesota, and long-time commentator about presidential politics (my first campaign covered was in 1972), I am frequently asked by DC-based colleagues what I think of the Minnesota “Twins.” These are not questions about the baseball team; they are about the remarkable fact that two of the five or six major Republican candidates for president in 2012 are from the Gopher State.

As it happens, I have known Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann for many years and observed their careers evolve from simple beginnings.. In Pawlenty’s case, I first met him in 1990 when he was working for a state gubernatorial campaign. He was then in his late 20s, but it was clear he was a “comer.” Soon after that, he was elected to the state house of representatives where he eventually rose to be majority leader. When he indicated that he would run for U.S. senate (against incumbent Paul Wellstone) in 2001-02, it seemed he could be a serious opponent, although not likely to defeat the well–known incumbent. Then-St. Paul Mayor Norman Coleman announced he would run again for governor (he had been the GOP nominee for that post in 1998, but had come in second behind Jesse Ventura).

Apparently then-Vice President Dick Cheney felt that Coleman would be a stronger opponent to Wellstone, so he called Pawlenty and “asked” him to switch to the governor’s race so that Coleman could run for senator. That phone call may have changed more American history than it did Minnesota history. As it turned out, Coleman defeated Walter Mondale, a last-minute substitute for Wellstone who had tragically died in an airplane accident only a few days before election day. Pawlenty won a close contest for the GOP nomination and went on to win the governor’s race by a plurality when the Independence Party (IP), as it had in 1998, drained votes from the Democratic (in this state, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) nominee. In 2006, Pawlenty again narrowly won a plurality re-election when the IP again nominated a credible candidate.

Like Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann first drew public attention as a very conservative member of the state legislature (she was a state senator). A former tax attorney, mother of five (and foster mother of additional 23 children), Bachmann was always a conservative lightning rod in her eastern suburban Twin Cities district. The local media, typically liberal, found her early to be a favorite target, with a focus on her frequent verbal flubs (while, of course, ignoring the flubs of liberal legislators). In 2006, she decided to run for Congress, and won.

When each of them first came to my attention, I would not have even suggested that either of them might become serious presidential candidates. But Pawlenty had certain skills, specifically the ability to explain complex political issues in a way that ordinary voters could understand. Bachmann, on the other hand, seemed more interested in gaining public attention around provocative social issues, and this enabled her critics and most in the media to portray her as “light.” Nontheless, her base in the 6th congressional district remained quite loyal, and when she made a major blunder on national TV in 2008 just before the election, she still managed to survive. In 2010, the DFL opponent raised more than $4 million to defeat he, but didn’t really come close. Mrs. Bachmann seemed secure in her district, and likely to remain there.

After the 2008 election, Mrs. Bachmann formed a friendship with Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee. In 2010, Bachmann brought in Mrs. Palin for a fundraiser in Minneapolis, and, with both of them on the stage at the same time, I saw for the first time clearly that Mrs. Bachmann could match Mrs. Palin for charisma and excitement among conservative voters.

Speaking honestly, even then I did not see Michele Bachmann as a national figure, and when she indicated she might run for president in early 2011, I ranked her as a third tier candidate. She also then seemed to focus only on sensational social conservative issues, and sounded a bit shrill in her speeches. Her rise now to be a first tier contender happened almost suddenly as it became likely Mrs. Palin would not run in 2012, and conservative icons such as Mike Huckabee also would not run.

The question is then: Is there something different about the “new” Michele Bachmann? I’m certain she and her long-time supporters would argue she is the same as she was before, but I would suggest that, as sometimes happens when a political figure thrusts themself, or is thrust, on the national electoral stage, Michele Bachmann is showing off a new or expanded image of herself. Her speeches recently have lost most of the earlier shrillness, and particularly in her new video about the Middle East and in her kick-off announcement in her home town of Waterloo, Iowa, her words seem less sensational and more inspirational. There is also now no question she has a national base, although it remains to be seen if that base will turn out in the primary and caucus voting.

A recent minor flub about John Wayne’s home town received its usual mega-attention in the Old Media, but now this attention seems petty, especially since the Old Media totally ignores similar or worse flubs by President Obama and Vice President Biden, who makes them routinely. (On the other hand, Mrs. Bachmann might be well-served from now on to have her own fact-checker for her speeches.)

So when my media friends in DC asked me what I thought of the Bachmann candidacy, I answered that she was now a serious contender, but that the degree of her impact will be revealed ahead. Former Governor Pawlenty still has by far the larger, and more professional, campaign in Iowa, and in spite of his media-ballyhooed blunder in the New Hampshire TV debate, has personal and political resources that could easily put him again as Mr. Romney’s major challenger. Yet Mrs. Bachmann is the one attracting early more formidable poll numbers, campaign cash raised, and excitement in her home state. Mr. Pawlenty must somehow overcome this by the time of the Iowa Caucuses in January because if Mrs. Bachmann significantly outpolls him there, his campaign could be real trouble.

Liberal Democrats love to hate Mrs. Bachmann, and to single her out as a “right wing nut.” The Old Media is obsessed with making fun of her, and incessantly tries to marginalize her, but something is up with her candidacy right now, and her opponents ridicule and underestimate her at their peril.

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