Queen of the Tea Party
The presidential campaign of Michele Bachmann
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Schaeffer was important because he widened the scope of evangelical thought and criticism. Study and interpretation needn’t be limited to Scripture, he argued, but should include the whole of Western civilization. “Essentially, his argument is that faith, the Bible—Old and New Testament—has something to do with all of life, in a positive way,” Michele said. “He goes through history and he shows how Michelangelo and Da Vinci and great artists were inspired by their faith.”
It was at Winona State that Michele began to date Marcus Bachmann. The couple volunteered on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. They handed out flyers in college dorms supporting the Georgia governor and his Minnesotan running mate. When Carter won, Marcus and Michele received an invitation to attend the presidential inauguration. They’d never been to Washington. Michele was on the racquetball court when Marcus told her they could travel to D.C. for $100. At first she resisted. “I said, ‘A hundred dollars to go to Washington, D.C.?’ ” Too much money.
But Marcus was convincing. Before long, they were on their way in a van from Winona with six other students. “It was kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies,” she said. “I remember we came over this hill and saw the horizon, and there was the Capitol, and honest to God, tears were coming down my face.”
Carter’s was the last inauguration to take place on the Capitol’s east portico. The day was freezing. What really stood out, though, was all the grub. The young Minnesotans went from ballroom to ballroom, and each location was stocked with huge trays of brownies and deli meats and cheeses. Michele had never seen anything like it. She and Marcus participated in the ancient ritual, known to interns everywhere, of surviving off free food.
The students returned to Minnesota and followed Carter from afar. It soon seemed the apogee of Carter’s presidency had been Inauguration Day. “We were extremely disappointed,” she said. “We were disappointed on almost every level.” Stagflation reigned. Carter was feckless on the international front. And on social policy he was awful: Carter’s task force on the family couldn’t even agree on the definition of their subject. “A three-year-old knows what a family is,” Michele said. “And they weren’t able to do that. And I thought, Jimmy Carter’s supposed to be a born-again Christian. What’s going on here?”
The disillusionment was irrevocable. One day while she was in college, Michele took the train from Minneapolis to Winona. She’d brought along a copy of Burr, Gore Vidal’s fictional portrayal of America’s Founders, to pass the time. What she read horrified her. Told from the point of view of Aaron Burr, Vidal’s novel makes endless fun of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. At one point the narrator says America’s first president had a large rear end. “It was so disgusting to me,” Michele said, “talking about how he was waddling or something.” She put the book down and looked out the window at the passing landscape. He’s mocking the Founders, she thought. That’s not who these men were. Then she thought: I don’t think I’m a Democrat.
“And at that moment, I became a Republican. I
Michele and Marcus married after graduating from college in 1978. They spent the next year working in Minnesota, Michele at the Buffalo County judge’s office, Marcus in social work. Then began the long juggling act of continuing their education while holding jobs and raising kids. The family moved to Tulsa, then Virginia Beach, for graduate school. By the time they wound up in Stillwater, Minnesota, in the late 1980s, the Bachmanns had a law degree from Oral Roberts (Michele), a master’s in tax law from William and Mary (Michele), a master’s in education and counseling from Regent University (Marcus), and a growing family.
Marcus went on to open two successful Christian counseling clinics. Bachmann worked as a federal tax attorney until the birth of her fourth child. She always had plenty to do. “We taught all of our children to read and write at home before we sent them to school, and we sent our biological children to Christian school,” she said.
The Bachmanns also opened their home to teenage girls with eating disorders. The maximum number of kids, biological and nonbiological, they had at one time was nine. There came a moment when “we found ourselves with a seventh grader, a first grader, a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a nursing newborn,” Bachmann said, “and four foster children.” There were so many kids in the house the family applied for a group home license.
Bachmann was involved in all aspects of her children’s education. In the early 1990s, she joined the board of a Christian-influenced charter school in Stillwater. She left that position in 1993, but remained interested in civic life. She and Marcus were active in the pro-life movement. Curriculum reform, though, was the issue that eventually drove her into politics.
In 1998, in order to secure federal education money, Minnesota adopted a state curriculum called Profile of Learning. “In a nutshell, the Profile of Learning amounted to the bureaucrats writing the lesson plans for the teachers,” said Minnesota Republican Allen Quist, whose wife Julie would go on to work in Bachmann’s congressional office. “Whoever writes the lesson plans really controls what’s being taught.” Also, the standards were shockingly low.
How low? One day in the late 1990s, one of Bachmann’s foster daughters, then in the eleventh grade, took out her math homework. It was a poster. The assignment was to color it.
Bachmann was shocked. She began to investigate why students were playing with crayons a year before they graduated from high school. Things were worse than she anticipated. Not only were the standards poor, but she regarded the Profile of Learning as tantamount to liberal brainwashing. “What you might call a kind of radical left political indoctrination was coming in that wasn’t necessarily reflective of the attitudes, values, and beliefs of parents,” she told me.
Bachmann delayed her plans to return to tax law. She wanted to focus on defeating the Profile. She became involved in a group called the Maple River Education Coalition, organized by Quist and others. “What was really impressive about Michele was that she absolutely threw herself into researching this stuff,” said activist Karen Effrem. “She spent hundreds if not thousands of hours reading the federal laws, and all of these different contracts, and the standards themselves.”
Bachmann and members of Maple River organized a kind of road show. Beginning in December 1998, she criss-crossed Minnesota at her own expense, traveling up to three times a week, urging parents to reject the Profile. Her shtick was part Phil Donahue, part Carrie Nation. “I would go into a gymnasium,” Bachmann said, “and by the time the two hours were up, people who’d known nothing about the Profile were ready to grab a pitchfork and say, ‘Not with my kid you don’t!’ ”
Audiences loved it. “It was a very positive reaction,” Minnesota state senator Dave Thompson said. “She’s got a lot of charisma, a lot of personality, and she’s very passionate.” Bachmann caught the eye of a local GOP official, who suggested in 1999 that she run for the Stillwater school board. That contest is the only election she’s ever lost.
In April 2000, as the fight to overturn the Profile of Learning continued, Bachmann attended her local nominating convention for state senate. The incumbent, moderate Republican Gary Laidig, had 28 years’ experience. But he was increasingly out of step with the conservative families pouring into the St. Paul suburbs. As the convention began, Bachmann conversed with her fellow activists. Laidig had to go, they said. Someone suggested Bachmann run against him.
She didn’t know what to do. She was wearing jeans and tennis shoes and a sweatshirt with a hole in it. She’d had no business leaving the house that morning, she said.
But Bachmann went on stage and delivered a five minute speech on freedom. Then she sat down. “I’m sitting there, and I had to be neutral,” former Minnesota state GOP chairman Ron Eibensteiner told me in 2009. “But I’m thinking to myself, boy, would I love to have her run.” Laidig gave a speech, and the convention took a vote. Bachmann won a supermajority on the first ballot.
Shocked, Laidig decided to challenge her in a primary. Bachmann won handily. It was no mystery why. “She tells it like it is,” Minnesota GOP state chair Tony Sutton told me two years ago. “She doesn’t pull any punches. That’s why she has such a strong following.”
Bachmann won the state senate seat in November 2000. The question was how long she’d be able to keep the office. Redistricting forced her to run against a 10-year Democratic incumbent, Jane Krentz, in 2002. A committee chairman, Krentz had the support of environmental and women’s groups. The Democrats who controlled the state senate had created the new district with her in mind. During the campaign, Bachmann stressed the Profile of Learning and drew contrasts between her conservatism and Krentz’s liberalism. Bachmann won again, 54 percent to Krentz’s 46 percent. Minnesota repealed the Profile of Learning the following May.
Bachmann went looking for a new cause. “I see her as an activist who happens to be a legislator,” said Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council. “She just pours herself 100 percent-plus into whatever she’s engaged in.” In late November 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had a legal right to marry, Bachmann proposed a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
“People saw that something was changing in our country,” Bachmann said. “For the first time a state supreme court, in Massachusetts, had ordered its legislature to pass a law conforming with the views of those who sat on the court.” Bachmann’s amendment never passed the legislature. But it did make her more prominent and controversial. Local columnists ridiculed her. There were calls for a boycott of Stillwater businesses. A group of Democratic activists started the “Dump Bachmann” blog. The site became the place where one could find every last Bachmann speech, letter, and article—even pictures of her car.
Things got a little weird. In April 2005, when gay rights activists rallied in front of the state capitol in St. Paul, a local photographer captured Bachmann as she seemed to be peering through some bushes at the protesters. Bachmann and those with her said she was sitting down after standing for awhile in high heels. Around the same time, Bachmann filed a report with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in which she said that two women had accosted her in the ladies’ room of a local community center after a meeting on the same-sex marriage amendment. As the anti-Bachmann bloggers began to track her closely, she removed her home address and telephone number from the state senate directory. She requested security protection.
By then, Bachmann was a candidate for federal office. In February 2005, her congressman, Republican Mark Kennedy, had announced he was running for U.S. Senate. Within days, Bachmann said she’d run to replace him. The race for the Sixth Congressional District became one of the closest in the country. Bachmann’s Democratic opponent was Patty Wetterling, a nationally recognized spokeswoman for missing and abused children. The two campaigns spent copious sums: $3 million for Wetterling, $2.7 million for Bachmann. The national campaign committees and affiliated groups spent much more.
The Sixth District had been designed for Kennedy, who’d held the seat since 2002. The population is wealthy (median income $68,195), young (median age 34), growing (up 17 percent between 2000 and 2007), and bright red. Republicans have won the district handily in the last two presidential elections. A McCain-Palin rally in Blaine in September 2008 drew an estimated 13,000 people. The race was Bachmann’s to lose.
And she didn’t lose. Despite a last-minute surge for the Democrat when the Mark Foley scandal broke in September 2006, Bachmann defeated Wetterling 50 percent to 42 percent. She was one of only 13 Republican freshmen elected in 2006. Hers was the smallest freshman GOP class since the House expanded to 435 members in 1911. There was no way that she’d get lost in the crowd.
"Coming from the outside, my view was that Congress was made up of boozing, skirt-chasing slackers,” Bachmann told me. That wasn’t what she found, for the most part.
A freshman congressman, especially one in the minority, faces a choice. She can be an inside player and keep a low profile while building coalitions and working on legislation. Or she can play outside and use her office as a platform to advocate for her party and ideas. Bachmann chose the latter course.
Representative Steve King of Iowa, a Bachmann ally, remembers when he first noticed the lady from Still-water. King, then in his third term, was in charge of scheduling after-hours speeches one night in early 2007. Bachmann accepted his invitation to speak to the C-SPAN cameras from the House floor. There was one potential hitch: When King told her what the leadership wanted her to talk about, Bachmann said she didn’t know anything about it.
“And I said, ‘Well, that really doesn’t matter here,’ ” King joked last week. “And I gave her a sheet of paper with a few sentences on it. When she came back in about 15 minutes, she had become an expert. She streamed it off the top of her head with extreme clarity.” Here’s someone who’s a quick study and extremely intelligent, King thought.
In the summer of 2008, when gas was $4 a gallon, then-minority leader John Boehner led a group of 10 House freshmen to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Bachmann was among them. At the end of the trip the group had dinner in Fairbanks with Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin. “It was wonderful to be able to meet her before all of the media attention and just get to know her on that basis,” Bachmann said. “So we had a wonderful meeting with her, and then I met her again when she came to Minnesota as a vice presidential candidate at the convention.” Palin, who campaigned for Bachmann in 2010, remains a friend.
The two women are compared constantly. Both have five children, both are Christians, both were drawn into politics through their children’s education, and both are Republicans whom Democrats love to hate.
But there are also some differences. 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 unites Bachmann and Palin, above all, is the contempt with which they are treated by liberals. “I’m just mocked and marginalized, Sarah Palin is mocked and marginalized,” Bachmann told me. “If you are unashamed and vocal about your position as a conservative, that’s what happens. That’s what happened to Reagan, that’s what happened to Newt Gingrich, that’s what happens to anyone who’s not afraid to be a conservative. It’s part of the job.”
The closest Bachmann has come to marginalization—and defeat—was on October 17, 2008, when she appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews as a surrogate for the McCain-Palin campaign. The topic was Barack Obama’s associations with ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In the course of the interview, Bachmann said she was “very concerned” that Obama “may have anti-American views.” Then, after minutes of baiting by Matthews, Bachmann said, “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?”
One immediately sensed that Bachmann was in trouble. Her DFL opponent in 2008, former Blaine mayor Elwyn Tinklenberg, received $1.5 million in donations after the Hardball interview went viral on liberal websites. The Democrats unloaded more than $1 million in television ads in Bachmann’s district. The influx of money and energy worried Minnesota Republicans. “You’re always concerned when a bunch of money comes from out of state,” Tony Sutton said. Bachmann barely survived. She beat Tinklenberg 46 percent to 43 percent, running seven points behind McCain.
The Hardball incident was a classic example of the risks inherent in the outside game. The more prominent you are as a political figure, the more likely you are to make gaffes or statements that offend the media’s sensibilities. Even Bachmann’s greatest fans would admit that sometimes her mouth runs ahead of her internal censor. She’s said that Iran had a secret plan to partition Iraq. She’s used Michael Barone’s phrase “gangster government” to describe the Obama administration.
She gave a speech where she said that, under the Democrats’ health care reforms, “if you are a grandmother with Parkinson’s or a child with cerebral palsy, watch out.” She gave another speech where she said, “What we have to today is make a covenant, slit our wrists, be blood brothers” so the Democrats’ plans do not pass Congress. More recently, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, she quoted a Libyan official who falsely claimed that NATO airstrikes had killed 30,000 civilians in his country. None of these statements, suffice it to say, helps Bachmann expand her political base.
But they are not necessarily a major impediment to the GOP nomination. Even when she goes over the top, the Minnesota congresswoman is eerily in tune with the grassroots. And the reason she’s so well situated is simple: Michele Bachmann was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool.
In 2009, soon after he came into office, President Obama went to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican conference. The session was closed to the press. Obama tried to convince Republicans to support his $1 trillion stimulus bill. Bachmann sat there skeptical. The president took only a few questions. Bachmann was startled by one of his answers. “He said that he would prefer to pass his agenda and be a one-term president rather than not pass his agenda and have two terms,” she told me. “Which means he is committed to his ideology.”
The stimulus passed without a single Republican vote. “That was one of our finest hours,” Bachmann said. What happened next is well documented: a large, spontaneous uprising against government bailouts, debt, taxes, and Obamacare. The Tea Party was beginning. The movement was populated with people like Michele Bachmann. “They see that Obama just seems to be completely clueless,” Bachmann said. “And everything he’s done has turned to dust. He has the opposite of a Midas Touch.”
What no one anticipated was a revolution in the character of the conservative movement. Social and economic conservatives had been distinct groups within the Republican party for decades. They were often at odds. But the Tea Party fused economic and social conservatism in a novel way. Most Tea Partiers focus on the looming insolvency of the United States, but they also hold traditional positions on social issues.
The kind of normative politics that’s long existed in the social conservative movement, where voters take their positions from a fixed moral code, is now being applied to government spending and taxation. “You cannot separate the fiscal issues from the moral issues,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The fight over health care is important to conservatives for this reason: How America provides health insurance isn’t only a question of finance. To the extent that health care law affects how one lives, and determines which behaviors government legitimizes through subsidy, it too is a question of morality. And when the Tea Party arrived at the crossroads of economic and social conservatism, Michele Bachmann was there waiting.
On the last Thursday of October 2009, the House Democrats unveiled their health care bill. The House Republicans met to discuss it. The message from leadership was that the bill was going to pass. There was nothing Republicans could do to stop it. Several members stood up and said the GOP couldn’t simply accept defeat. Yet the meeting adjourned without resolution. Most congressmen left for the weekend.
Rep. Steve King had been out pheasant hunting the week before with decorated war hero Colonel Bud Day. They’d talked about health care. Day urged King to call a rally outside the Capitol building. Jam the Capitol, Day said. Surround it. If you do that, he went on, the Democrats won’t be able to pass the bill.
King related this conversation to Bachmann as they walked out of the Capitol after the meeting. Bachmann looked at King and asked, Can we do that? King said he couldn’t see why not. Let’s do it, Bachmann said. “We spent the weekend putting that together,” King explained, “sending out emails and making phone calls and getting the talk radio people to light it up.” The rally was held the following Thursday, November 5. Thousands of Tea Partiers showed up. “That’s when it was real clear,” King said, “that Michele Bachmann had the instincts, charisma, and ability to move people.”
Bachmann’s activism had found a new purpose: stopping the president. The contest over Barack Obama’s policies was the Profile of Learning controversy writ large. King and Bachmann organized another rally for March 20, 2010, when Congress passed Obamacare.
This was the moment Bachmann began thinking of running for president. “I knew that whoever our nominee is, they have to be committed to the repeal of Obamacare,” she said. “Because that is the foundation stone that will ultimately give us socialized medicine.” The repeal of any law is difficult; the repeal of Obamacare requires the courage to fight the status quo in both parties.
Michele and Marcus discussed a possible presidential bid. Their youngest child would be off to college after the spring of 2011. And Bachmann continued to be disappointed in the GOP message. “I felt that we could do better to reflect the pulse of the people,” she said. Why not take this opportunity? Obama was looking more and more like Jimmy Carter. Michele remembered standing in her kitchen way back in 1979, fixated on the televised images of the Ayatollah Khomeini being welcomed into Tehran. The lack of American leadership then was not so unlike what’s happening in the Middle East today. “As bad as the economy is,” she said, “my concerns are the greatest on the foreign policy front.”
Bachmann supported the war in Iraq and wants to finish the job in Afghanistan. But she opposes Obama’s action in Libya. “Not only did he take his eyes off the real issue in the room, which is Iran with a nuclear weapon, he’s created an even worse problem in Libya,” she said.
She also dislikes the president’s energy policy. “We’ve got so much,” she said. “And here you’ve got Denmark trying to claim ownership” of territory in the oil-rich Arctic. “Denmark?” She waved her hand dismissively. “Get out of here, you pipsqueak! This is ours! We should be drilling everywhere for oil, and natural gas, and shale, and all of it. Do every bit of it.”
The extent of Bachmann’s disagreements with the president propelled her nascent candidacy. She saw a field divided between establishment types lacking a connection to the Tea Party and gadflies without much potential. And all of them were men. The departure of Mike Huckabee from the race cleared the way for Bachmann in her native Iowa. Many of Huckabee’s former staff joined her team. Bachmann was encouraged by the response to hints she might run for president. Momentum was building. It would soon be time to make an announcement.
A talented politician uses television appearances to make news. When Bachmann walked onstage at the CNN debate in Goffstown on June 13, she had a plan. The stage was made of shiny metal, and surrounded by huge electronic screens filled with bright and endlessly changing graphics. The moderator, John King, asked each candidate to deliver a short introduction. Then the questions began. The first topic was economics. What would each candidate do to create jobs and growth?
Herman Cain answered first. Then Rick Santorum, then Tim Pawlenty, then Mitt Romney, then Newt Gingrich. Finally it was Bachmann’s turn.
“Before I fully answer that,” she said, “I just want to make an announcement here for you, John, on CNN tonight.”
Her eyes lit up.
“I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States,” she said. “And I’ll very soon be making my formal announcement. So I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Applause broke out. Bachmann beamed. The other candidates smiled nervously. And grassroots conservatives across America understood: The queen of the Tea Party had arrived.
Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.