The terrifying truthfulness of the victor of the Ames straw poll
PRESUMABLY because both are attractive women, and she the lesser-known, the media used to disparage Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames straw poll on August 13th, as “Palin-lite”. That was always upside down. Whereas Sarah Palin was once flummoxed when invited to name the newspapers—any newspaper—she read, Mrs Bachmann, the third-term congresswoman from Minnesota, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that her favourite beachside reading included the work of Ludwig von Mises, a towering economist of the Austrian school. This column is even more impressed by her mastery of the 3.8m or so words of the ludicrous federal tax code. A lawyer who spent five years working for the Internal Revenue Service is not to be trifled with. When she says that the tax code is “a weapon of mass destruction”, she knows whereof she speaks.
If Mrs Bachmann’s cleverness was ever in question, the doubt should have been dispelled by her performance since confirming in June that she was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Before that she had attracted rather little national attention beyond the rapt circles of the tea-party movement. Her signature legislation, a light-bulb freedom of choice act, designed to protect the God-given right of every American to waste as much electricity as he pleases, had attracted more mirth than votes. In January she irritated the Republican leadership by insisting on delivering her own rebuttal, as creator and leader of the tea-party caucus in the House of Representatives, to Barack Obama’s state-of-the-union speech. It was an amateurish affair, in which she appeared to stare throughout at the wrong camera.
But how the lady has turned. Since joining the race for president she has exhibited a flair for organisation and a political cunning above the ordinary. If her victory in Ames was no great surprise—an evangelical Christian with hard-boiled pro-life, anti-gay-marriage credentials was always likely to prosper in the God-fearing cornfields of Iowa—her disciplined comportment as a campaigner has been. When, before Ames, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked her outright whether she was a “flake”, she refused to be baited, maintained an icy insouciance and, later, received a grovelling apology. A Newsweek cover picturing her with crazed eyes as “The Queen of Rage” probably did more damage to Tina Brown, the would-be saviour of that troubled publication, than to the would-be saviour of America, who affected to pay it no attention. Under attack in the debate at Ames, she coolly disposed of one of her main challengers, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota.
Still, there is a reason why that “flake” question was posed. Mrs Bachmann has a record of making factual mistakes, repeating untruths and adopting preposterous stances. Though some of the mistakes have been mere slips, they were slips of a sort that a candidate who claims a close familiarity with America’s founding ought never to have made. At one point she said that the “shot heard round the world” had been fired in Lexington, New Hampshire (it was Lexington, Massachusetts); at another that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” (wrong by almost a century). She claimed in 2008 that Mr Obama held “anti-American” views, and last year that his visit to India would cost taxpayers $200m a day, a fantastic number apparently plucked, unchecked, from Indian newspapers. She continues to maintain, preposterously, that Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit because Congress raised the debt ceiling. The opposite is true: the agency wanted more deficit reduction but expressed alarm at the spectacle of politicians like Mrs Bachmann turning the debt ceiling into a political bargaining chip.
Now that she is running for president, Mrs Bachmann is choosing her words more cautiously, especially on social issues. But she has had to resort to credulity-stretching gymnastics to explain past utterances. Did she become a tax lawyer against her own will because, as she once argued, it was a wife’s duty (see the fifth chapter of Ephesians) to be “submissive” to her husband, who thought it was a good idea? No, she says now, in an assertion that would dumbfound a lexicographer: to “submit” means to “respect”. Why in 2004 did she equate homosexuality to “personal enslavement”? “I am running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone’s judge.” Such evasions are less than convincing. As a Minnesota state senator a decade ago, Mrs Bachmann made her opposition to gay marriage into a crusade that helped to build her political career. The clinic she set up with her husband Marcus (which she cites as evidence of her understanding of job creation) offered to make gays straight via the agency of prayer. Judgmental, moi?
Her liberal critics make rich fun of all this. But exaggeration, inexactitude and mendacity are the currency of politics. The voter who grumbles about these things is like the farmer who grumbles about the weather. If Mrs Bachmann is guilty of such sins, she is hardly alone. Indeed, her most potent weapon might, paradoxically, be the fundamental honesty that undergirds her positions. That is to say, people can tell that, unlike most candidates, what you see is what you would get: a strongly religious person; a moraliser; a diminutive figure who really does appear to have, as she boasts, a “titanium spine”; a conviction politician in an age when many convictions are feigned. A Midwestern Margaret Thatcher with added divinity, she stands primed to reverse the monstrous growth of the entitlement state, convinced that whatever short-term suffering this causes will nonetheless restore the moral fibre of America. Many Americans would no doubt vote for her if she made it through the primaries. But far more are likely to be frightened, which is why she probably won’t.