Friday, January 7, 2011

The Education of Michele Bachmann

President Michele Bachmann. Those words send an emotional shock up the spine. For Tea Party members and supporters they represent their greatest hope, finally someone who will right the country and defend the Constitution. For liberals and perhaps many Republicans, their greatest fear, an ignorant bomb thrower, cradling the craziest of ideas about economics, politics, and the law.

But what is certain, almost no one does not know who Michele Bachmann is and none are neutral over her. She elicits in all a visceral reaction few others can, rivaling the responses to Obama and Palin.

But what makes Bachmann run? How do we explain her meteoric rise in less than a decade and her lighting rod status? As someone who has watched Bachmann from the start of her career, and with one of my former students (in a campaigns and election class) Andy Parrish as her campaign manager and aide, I look at her from a unique perspective. What drives Bachmann is her ego. The single most brilliant skill Bachmann possesses has been her ability to ride a rhetorical wave of conservativism as a vehicle to fuel her personal ambition. For those who support her, the reality is that their darling is long on rhetoric and short on results and she should be a real disappointment to all of them. For liberals, she has become a distraction, diverting precious resources and time away from real policy. Bachmann thus is a product of both liberals and conservatives, both of whom find her useful to their causes, and she knows it and has used both to drive her career.

The Rise of Michelle Bachmann
When news broke the other day that Bachmann was contemplating a presidential run reporters asked me if I was surprised. I said no. In fact, for the last six months or more I repeatedly stated in talks to groups that 2010 would be Bachmann’s last run for Congress. But, at that time I contended she would challenge Amy Klobuchar for the Senate in 2012. I argued that because redistricting and the potential loss of a Minnesota House seat would put her out of a job (especially if the Democrats won both the governorship and the legislature). More importantly, I argued raw ambition and ego would drive her to abandon the House for the Senate.

Raw ambition and conservative rhetoric have been the hallmark of her record of her entire career, along with a legislative record devoid of accomplishment.

Bachmann first bursts on to the Minnesota political scene in 2000, knocking off moderate GOPer Gary Laidig in a primary. She went on to victory in the Senate that year and in 2002. During her brief years in the Senate as a minority member she accomplished little, but made huge headlines about gays, abortion, and taxes. It was here she learned an important lesson–state the outrageous, keep your name in the news, promote yourself. Even in the State Senate she had already become the poster child for both the new GOP and the Democrats wanting to run against her and use her for fund-raising.

She then runs for the House of Representatives in 2006, beating a weak Patty Wetterling in a district ideally suited to Bachmann. It was districted plus 6 for the GOP, encompassing perhaps the most conservative in the state. The seat was open when Mark Kennedy abandoned it to run for the Senate against Amy Klobuchar, both seeking to fill the seat vacated by Senator Mark Dayton. The Sixth District House seat, way more conservative than the rest of Minnesota, is a poor springboard to run for statewide office. Kennedy found that out. His conservative rhetoric that played so well in the 6th doomed him statewide as it proved impossible for him to reinvent himself as a moderate.

Bachmann then again won in '08 against another equally bland and ineffective candidate in El Tinklenberg, a former MNDOT commissioner who was uninspiring as a candidate. Bachmann won big in a Democrat year, honing a image of strength and resolve against Obama and the coming order.

Then in 2010, she won in a GOP anti-Obama year against former state senator Tarryl Clark in a race of epic dollar proportions. It became the most expensive House race in US history with Bachmann alone raising nearly $20 million. She won by 12 points in a race Democrats never had a chance to win. In fact, back in September I blogged about how Democrats were wasting their money. They were diverting too many resources to an unwinnable race and should have shifted money elsewhere.

Yet Democrats could not resist. For every day FOX news featured Bachmann, Keith Olbermann did the same on MSNBC. Why such lavish attention from both networks for a two term congresswoman? Ratings! Conservatives loved to see her and liberals loathed her. Bachmann was a media icon and profit center, and she know it.

Bachmann for President
So Bachmann wins a third term in Congress. She is the head of a Tea Party caucus in a GOP-led Congress. She is on the verge of real political power. So why bolt and run for president? Simply, ego and the demand to deliver on rhetoric explain the choice. Along with dwindling options otherwise.

Imagine Bachmann in the House now that the GOP controls it. Bachmann now has to translate rhetoric into legislative skill and deliver. This is something she has never done. She served in the minority both in the Minnesota Senate and in the House of Representatives. She never had to deliver on promises, she never had to move legislation, and she did not. Her skill was not constituent service or getting things done–it has been advancing herself.

Now the GOP are in charge and responsible. For Bachmann this is a challenge. She hast to deliver on all her rhetoric. What better way to avoid it than to run for a different office. Why not the Senate? No way. Polls suggest that a 2012 bid against Klobuchar was a far cry compared to the weak opponents of the past. Klobuchar has the highest approval rating of any politician in MN, leading Bachmann by 17 points in the polls. Bachmann sees these numbers and knows the 6th district is a lousy platform for a Senate bid. Instead, go in a different direction–ride the Tea Party wave and take on a potentially weakened Obama in 2012.

Bachmann the Politainer
In seeking to explain the phenomena of Jesse Ventura who went from wrestler and B movie actor to the governorship in 1998, a graduate student and I coined the term politainer. A politainer was an entertainer who understood how to use multi media venues and marketing as a catapult into a political career. Politainers were a creature of a new phenomena in America–politainment or the collapse of politics into entertainment. Once elected a politainer–a politician and entertainer–continued to manipulate the convergence of politics and entertainment to further a political career.

Ventura was a politainer, as was Schwarzenegger. Both used their entertainment personas to launch political careers and once elected, continued to manipulate the politianment environment to further their ends. We still live in the land of politainment, it has changed. The world of the Internet, social networking sites, and Twitter create even more extraordinary multi-media venues than ever before. Obama understood that and exploited them all in 2008. But, he did it differently from Ventura. If Ventura sought to exploit his entertainment persona and brand for political purposes, Obama sought to take his political brand and persona–honed with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech–and transform himself into an entertainment marketing concept. He did it successfully in '08. His talks became rock concert events, and among the young especially, he used the new and social media to market himself.

Then came Palin. She has taken what Obama did to a new level. Her post-VP run is marked by a multi-media transformation into a politianment brand. She is Sara Palin, Inc., and Sarah Palin©.

Now we have Bachmann. She bears significant resemblance to both her parents, Obama and Palin. All three have had rapidly rising careers marked by strong political rhetoric, enthusiastic fans, and a mastery of the new world of politainment. But what distinguishes Bachmann from Obama and Palin is her ability to connect to the anger of some voters who see a world slipping way to the socialism of Obamacare, gay marriage, and the UN. It is the linkage of Bachmann to a politainment world and what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics that makes her unique. She draws on the classic dark side of American resentment, fear of others, anti-intellectualism, and paranoia, combining them with a profit-driven politainment world that needs people like her to promote for ratings. She speaks for the features and prejudices of many, and serves the purposes of FOX, MSNBC, and other media outlets. She is a creature of their making and she uses them for her own purposes.

But What is Bachmann’s Endgame?
I guess I got it wrong in the sense that I underestimated the depth of her ego. Whether she believes what she says is unimportant, all of that has been secondary to Bachmann’s first goal–herself. In a career otherwise devoid of real accomplishment, what Bachmann has mastered is the ability to understand the new politics of the 21st century–one that has take politics and entertainment and merged them together into a hyperactive, sound bite, rhetoric driven multi-media 24/7 world. She is not the first to discover this world, but she has perfected it.

There is a great closing scene in the 1992 film The Candidate featuring Robert Redford. Redford plays a paper thin vapid plastic Hollywood candidate who wins a Senate race. The film closes with him looking into the camera, exclaiming: “What do we do now?”

In many ways this is Bachmann. No, I do not mean that Bachmann is vapid. She has been brilliant in understanding how to manipulate the media and others for her goals. All political candidates do that to some degree. But, Bachmann instead has done all of that without a real legislative record and without having to be in a position where she has to be responsible for her rhetoric. Her endgame is not policy and politics.

I envision talk of a presidential bid to be used as a springboard for her next position–perhaps as hosting another FOX or CNN show of her own and giving speeches for outrageous fees. Both jobs suit her well. She can continue to be the rhetorical bomb thrower without having to deliver on anything of substance. She gets to be Michelle Bachmann and not have to work with others. Her decision to float rumors of a presidential bid on the day a new GOP Congress took over and the other Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, began his presidential bid show that she is not in it for the party but herself.

Bachmann in power will disappoint her Tea Party followers. Get out while the popularity is high and the cash value keen. Get out before they turn against you and realize that you have done nothing for them except disappoint.


  1. Last night at DL, there was some conversation about a Bachmann "candidacy." One fellow, given to outlining his comments, said, "A, she might really be crazy enough to think she could be elected president," an option easily dismissed by the group. I can't remember B and C, but I think it was D that held she was floating the idea and maybe considering it to increase her media value.

    Everyone thought that was probably the case. Rather like the Sarah Palin.

  2. Outstanding analysis, David.

    A lot of people outside Rep. Bachmann's district consider her crazy. I've believe she's crazy like a fox. I spoke with Rep. Bachmann this week about her presidential intensions and she left me with the impression that whether she runs or not, she wants to have a say in crafting the opposition to President Obama. She's smart enough to know that her rising profile gives her a platform to become the anti-Obama "bomb thrower" as you so descriptively outlined.

    With the exception of Sarah Palin, no one in politics is better at promoting herself than Mrs. Bachmann. In fact, we should call her "P.T. Bachmann." Like you, I believe her end game is a lucrative TV talk show gig, and what a better way to add brand value than to have "former presidential candidate" as part of her resume.

    In the meantime for political scientists such as yourself, and journalists such as myself, Rep. Bachmann is the gift that keeps on giving.

  3. David, your prognostication of the Democrats wasting their money on Bachmann would be more impressive if it had come in June or July, when there was still time to shift investment to a race that might have benefited from it. Once September rolls around, if a campaign hasn't raised enough to be considered "viable", it's too late.

    I admit, I was wrong about the 6th this cycle. I said early in 2009 the DFL was going to spend $6M and lose by 8 points. They spent more and lost worse...