Queen of the Tea Party
The presidential campaign of Michele Bachmann
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
If she’d fallen backward, she’d have been killed. It was September 2009, during her second term in Congress, and a magazine had sent a photographer to shoot Michele Bachmann. He escorted her to the third floor rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, where he positioned a large orange crate next to the balustrade. He told her to stand on it. She reluctantly obliged. Behind her were three stories of empty air.
The announcement: Bachmann in New Hampshire
The magazine had also sent a videographer, who wanted Bachmann to gesture ecstatically for the camera. “And I said, ‘That’s not what I do,’ ” Bachmann remembered during a recent interview at her temporary campaign headquarters in downtown Washington. “ ‘I’m a serious member of Congress.’ ” So she got off the crate. The photo shoot soon ended, and the pictures were never published. “I think they didn’t get what they wanted,” Bachmann said. “They wanted this freak caricature.”
We were speaking a few days after Bachmann’s well-received performance at a Republican primary debate in Goffstown, New Hampshire, on June 13. Bachmann’s poise and deft answers, and her announcement that she’d filed the paperwork to run for president, made her stand out from the other candidates. Perhaps the caricature has begun to fade.
Energetic, charismatic, intelligent, and attractive, the 55-year-old Bachmann is no stranger to publicity. Since she arrived on the national scene in 2007, her prominence in the conservative movement has skyrocketed. In the world of talk radio and cable news, she possesses something like Most Favored Guest status. She plays the outside game, using media appearances to further the right’s agenda. She’s been featured in calendars of female conservative superstars. There’s even a Michele Bachmann action figure.
What Bachmann lacked until recently was mainstream credibility. And the skepticism was bipartisan. Democrats loathed her—and still do—because she’s about as far from an apologetic conservative as you can get. But plenty of Republican officials and consultant types also didn’t like Bachmann. Republican elites muttered that she was a show horse, not a work horse. Her fame alienated colleagues. One congressman recently told me that Bachmann had been upbraided during a House GOP conference meeting for undermining the leadership’s message on fiscal issues. Bachmann’s tendency to shoot from the hip is said to limit her appeal. “I think Bachmann’s chances of landing on Jupiter are higher than her chances of being nominated,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy told me in an April interview for Washingtonpost.com.
Well, get ready for an interplanetary expedition. Bachmann is a far more serious candidate for the Republican nomination than her reputation would suggest. She’s a talented fundraiser who raised $13.5 million for her 2010 reelection campaign. She’s a television star who appropriately tailors her message to her audience. Her combativeness will delight conservatives eager to fight Barack Obama. Her movement credentials—she founded the House Tea Party Caucus—put her at the cutting edge of right-wing politics. And in a primary campaign where authenticity counts, no other candidate has Bachmann’s unique history: an Iowa native who put herself through law school, raised her five children and took in 23 foster children, and has never lost an election for state or federal office.
Since 2009, millions of Americans have attended rallies, joined Tea Party groups, and become involved in politics. They’re scared for the future of the country, and they want to stop America’s decline. Many of these activists are parents or grandparents who simply weren’t political before government policies drove them into the arena. Michele Bachmann is uniquely positioned to speak to these voters—because she’s one of them.
Michele Amble was born on April 6, 1956, in Waterloo, Iowa, the second of four children and the only girl. Her childhood was modest. Her parents owned a small home and rented out the top floor for income. Her father was studying to be an engineer. When Michele was four, the family moved into a three-bedroom rambler. “It was probably lower middle class,” she said, “and then, as families do, we moved up to middle class.” She was baptized and raised in the Lutheran church.
The Ambles come from Norwegian immigrants who arrived in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. They trace their roots in Iowa back seven generations. They were Democrats. The one Republican Michele knew well as a child was her paternal grandmother, a devoted Wall Street Journal and Time magazine reader who, like her other grandparents, worked in a factory. David Amble, Michele’s father, was the first in the family to go to college.