The Tea Party and the Bachmann challenge

Representative Michele Bachmann (Minnesota) embraced the Tea Party enthusiastically as it first arrived, seeing it as the expression of the conservative populist sentiments she means to embody.  After the Republican victories of 2010, she started the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, and has been remarkably adept at cultivating media attention and raising money.  She’s an asset to the movement, energetic, telegenic, disciplined and focused.

Rep. Bachmann’s early success in campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination (campaign site) presents the movement with the dream/nightmare scenario that exemplifies–and extends–the purity/pragmatism dilemma inherent in electoral politics.  Bachmann chose the Tea Party, early and without ambivalence, but her candidacy leaves the movement with the nagging question of whether to choose her back.  What she brings to the table–and what she doesn’t bring–will define the movement in the next year, unless activists work very hard to stop it from happening.

While Rep. Bachmann is articulate and charming, and much better on the stump and in crowds than Sarah Palin, her profile does not demonstrate anything in the way of legislative accomplishments or mastery of inside politics.  Indeed, she has focused her efforts in Congress on the outside, refusing to cut deals of any kind, voting no on budget matters repeatedly, allowing her colleagues the responsibility of making something happen.  At the same time, she’s got a nose for the camera and the quick quote, articulating strong stands passionately and effectively.

Despite her extraordinary success at fundraising, her Republican colleagues have kept her out of any institutional position of power.  (In this regard, she is similar to the recently departed Democratic congressman, Anthony Weiner [New York].)  And, while she has generated early support at the grassroots, no national Republicans have been rushing to sign onto her campaign.  When those who should know your work best are reluctant to support you, it’s a sign that there may be trouble in the profile somewhere.  [Note, for example, that none of John Edwards’s Senate colleagues endorsed his presidential run.  Whether or not they knew of troubles in his personal life, it’s worth observing that they saw nothing in his Senate term that merited support.]

Elections turn movement causes into candidates, and Rep. Bachmann’s candidacy may have as many deficits and mistakes as other candidates for office.  More will certainly come out about her light legislative experience, and her family’s contracts with government agencies for farms and foster children.  Another potential problem is her repeated flubs about historical detail, which are amusing, but probably not fatal.  (There were books about Ronald Reagan’s misstatements.)  This all can lead to a distraction from Tea Party issues.

And those issues are likely even more important than the personal background of the candidate.  On the issues, Rep. Bachmann is a Tea Party fiscal stalwart, railing against all sorts of government spending and the deficit, and proposing the elimination of much of the government.  Rep. Bachmann is a committed populist Christian conservative, comfortable in talking about God and quoting scripture.  Her public career, even before elected office, offers ample evidence of her evangelical drive.  She cut her political teeth as a sidewalk counselor against abortion in the 1970s, and left the board of a charter school she helped start when parents complained about the promotion of Christianity in the curriculum.  Today, evangelical candidates demonstrate their props by fighting hard against abortion and same sex marriage.  Bachmann’s record is strong and solid; she fights hard against both.  And she adds a bonus: Bachmann claims to be an agnostic on evolution, and supports teaching intelligent design (read: creationism) in the public schools.

There are, to be sure, many Tea Partiers at the grassroots who share these positions.  But the big money organizations animating the movement do not.  And even at the grassroots, there is a large libertarian strain in the movement.  Folding the movement into the Bachmann campaign risks losing those libertarian supporters, while branding the Tea Party as a fundamentalist Christian movement.

Like most social movements, the Tea Party has been a coalition comprised of different interests and opinions that agree on a few key principles.  Filling out the movement with a candidate threatens that broad tent–and the movement’s future.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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