June 27, 2011
by Ronald Radosh
On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace turned to his guest Michele Bachmann and asked her, "Are you a flake?" Later he apologized, explaining that he only meant to seek her answer to what others in the media and elsewhere were saying about her. But what Bachmann did in response helped establish the command she has in the Iowa caucus, and the growing respect of so many for her, including those who are her political enemies.
Instead of complaining about the question, aside from saying that it was an insult because she is a "serious person," she used the opportunity to make it crystal clear why the very charge is more than insulting. Said Bachmann:
Well, I would say is that I am 55 years old. I've been married 33 years. I'm not only a lawyer, I have a post doctorate degree in federal tax law from William and Mary. I work in serious scholarship and work in the United States federal tax court.
My husband and I raised five kids. We've raised 23 foster children. We've applied ourselves to education reform. We started a charter school for at-risk kids.
I've also been a state senator and a member of United States Congress for five years. I've been very active in our business.
As a job creator, I understand job creation. But also I've been leading actively the movement in Washington, D.C., with those who are affiliated with fiscal reform.
Many of her detractors undoubtedly learned of her accomplishments at that moment, and must have been stunned to hear especially about her master's degree in tax law from William and Mary. Readers of The Weekly Standard are not among those, however, who were surprised. The cover story this week by Matthew Continetti lays out in detail how Bachmann, whom he dubs the "Queen of the Tea Party," got to where she is today. Despite the opposition of the Republican Party leadership, Bachmann is likely to beat Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, as well as gain the mainstream credibility she has lacked up to now.
One can disagree with her politics and her approach to some issues, and still acknowledge that Bachmann is both serious and principled. As Continetti reveals, she is a talented fund-raiser, a woman who takes principled stands on issues she believes in and who knows what she is talking about on fiscal issues. I was surprised to learn that when she finished high school, Bachmann went to Israel to work on a kibbutz, driving on a flatbed truck at 4 am to cotton fields to pull out weeds, surrounded by IDF soldiers protecting the members.
Her support for Israel stems from that experience, and is not a politically motivated recent concern. Continetti writes:
"If you consider what it was like in 1948," she said, "and literally watch flowers bloom in a desert over time — I don't know if any nation has paralleled the rise of Israel since 1948." A member of Christians United for Israel, she's one of Israel's strongest supporters in Congress. One Jewish Minnesota Republican has told me of speeches at local Republican Jewish Coalition events where Bachmann has brought cheering audiences to their feet.
She is a determined, strong woman who worked three jobs to put herself through college. Later she and the man who would be her husband endorsed and worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976, whom they saw as a fellow evangelical Christian, even driving to Washington to attend his inauguration. Quickly disillusioned by Carter's policies, Bachmann proclaimed herself a Republican. She never looked back.
Once she got to Congress, Continetti writes that she eschewed what most freshman members of Congress do, which is to keep a low profile and build coalitions. Instead, she chose to use her position as a platform to expound the ideas she believed in. Often compared to Sarah Palin, Continetti explains the major difference between the two Republican women:
Whereas Palin makes emotional and cultural appeals to her supporters, Bachmann formulates an argument. She talks like a litigating attorney, and her speeches, op-eds, and interviews are littered with references to books and articles. Not all of her references are conservative. During our recent interview, Bachmann cited Lawrence Wright's history of al Qaeda, The Looming Tower ("I love that book!"), to illustrate a point about the rise of radical Islam.
What does unite them, of course, is that the left and the liberals have nothing but utter contempt for both of them. Hence we will continue to hear that Bachmann is simply Palin redux. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The only question is whether or not Bachmann can expand her Republican base constituency and evangelical supporters to attract the votes of both independents and more centrist Republicans. At Commentary's Contentions, Jonathan S. Tobin writes that "in just a few weeks Bachmann has elevated herself from a second tier curiosity to a serious contender for the GOP nomination." She has been considered a flame-thrower and an extremist, someone whose flame will die out after the Iowa caucuses, leaving her in the position Mike Huckabee held in the last presidential race. As it is turning out, however, the mainstream Jon Huntsman is hardly gathering any support, while more and more Republicans are finding Bachmann more and more credible as a possible candidate.
As Tobin aptly writes,
Bachmann has shown herself in recent weeks to be a polished and articulate candidate who has carefully modulated her statements and demonstrated she is ready for prime time. As analyst Nate Silver wrote in today's New York Times, her polling numbers are simply terrific. She isn't merely competing with the frontrunners who are supposed to be out of her class; she has the best favorability ratings of any candidate.
And Silver adds that she might very well even win the Republican nomination.
If that indeed is the final outcome — we are of course a long way from the convention — be assured that the Obama team will do all it can to paint her as an out-of-touch, far-right extremist; a woman who would destroy the nation and throw it into a final downward spiral. Tobin writes that what Bachmann must do, if she is to be the nominee, is "to stay on message, avoid foolish mistakes and also develop a coherent approach to foreign policy that will make her sound like someone who could actually be president."
Michele Bachmann has shown that she has the skills to do just that. But to win the presidency, she has to gain the support of many more people than her own base in the Republican Party, and far more than the Christian evangelical community. And she has to gain the support primarily of those critical white working-class voters who now are facing hard times, and who had moved back to the ranks of the Democratic Party, only to show in the most recent polls that they are fed up with the Obama administration. She has to develop an economic policy that will let these voters feel that her policies will give them something to vote for as well.
At any rate, Michele Bachmann cannot be underestimated. She is now a major contender and is gathering more support and enthusiasm than her competitors.
Recently, E.J. Dionne wrote favorably about Jon Huntsman, saying that "he's the only Republican waging something other than a standard-issue conservative campaign and the only one directing most of his energies toward voters who don't take their cues from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh." That kind of endorsement will only serve to hurt Huntsman and harm his ability to get the votes of Republicans. Liberal pundits endorsing a Republican as a viable candidate is not something that will endear that person to conservative voters, who want a candidate who articulates a solid alternative to mainstream liberal shibboleths.
It is a sure thing that if Bachmann only grows in strength, Dionne will write a column blasting her as this year's Palin — a far-right Neanderthal who must be defeated at all costs. Undoubtedly, Michele Bachmann knows what is coming down the pike and is going to be prepared for the forthcoming assault.
Let us hope that whomever Republicans choose to nominate, it will be someone who can beat Obama solidly come the next presidential election day.
In her speech announcing her candidacy on Monday, Bachmann made what her opponents quickly condemned as a typical gaffe. Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa, she promised to match the spirit of Waterloo's own John Wayne. The only problem is that it was not John Wayne who heralded from the town, but the famous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Wayne, the movie actor, lived in Winterset, a three-hour drive from Waterloo. Wayne Gacy, the murderer, lived in Waterloo.
Making a big deal about this, to my mind, is much ado about nothing. Anyone could make such an error. But as it turns out, the actor Wayne had a very real tie to Waterloo, Iowa. His parents met and got married there, but soon after, moved to Winterset. Bachmann may very well have read this in a popular biography of Wayne, and remembered incorrectly his reference to Waterloo.
Anyway, her point was clear. As the Washington Times article notes, Bachmann, rejecting the idea that America has to go into decline, said: "I grew up with John Wayne's America. I was proud that you grew up in John Wayne's America: Proud to be an American, thrilled to be a patriot." Whether it was Waterloo or Winterset, she has made her argument as strong as she could.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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