10.28.08

The Hate Monger of Minnesota

How a Minnesota congresswoman became a poster child for the GOP crack-up.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, is now notorious for an incident on the October 17 edition of Hardball. Bachmann told Chris Matthews she was “concerned” that Obama “may have anti-American views,” and linked him to a Who’s Who of leftist agitators, from William Ayers to Saul Alinsky to Ward Churchill. “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?” Bachmann said.

Bachmann’s comments were an extreme example of McCain-Palin campaign’s closing theme: “Real America” and the “the pro-American parts of America” against nebulous socialist elites who “pal around with terrorists.” The once reliable tactic backfired in dramatic fashion, jeopardizing Bachmann’s reelection in what was once one of the country’s safest Republican districts. Bachmann is now the poster child of her party’s mounting political woes.

In 2005, while serving in the Minnesota state senate, Bachmann crept surreptitiously to the perimeter of a protest against a bill banning same-sex marriage. She ducked behind a bush, and for several minutes, Bachmann and a staffer observed the rally like spies.

While Bachmann’s gaffe startled pundits, a review of her political career shows she has a habit of unusual behavior and inflammatory statements. The fact that she has gotten away with it owes to her relative obscurity and her protection from religious conservatives. “Bachmann was an accident waiting to happen,” Steve Perry, the editorial director of the left-learning political news website, The Minnesota Independent, told me. “With no expertise in secular matters, she was caught between an enormous desire for attention and a well justified interest in repelling scrutiny.”

In 2005, while serving in the Minnesota state senate, Bachmann crept surreptitiously to the perimeter of a protest against a bill banning same-sex marriage. She ducked behind a bush, and for several minutes, Bachmann and a staffer observed the rally like spies. When a demonstrator approached the half-hidden Bachmann with a camera in hand, she scurried away, jumped in an SUV, and bolted from the scene.

Bachmann justified her behavior as an outgrowth of her religious convictions. She explained to a local mega-church audience soon after the incident: “For 34 years, I’ve been hot! And you want to be hot! Because when you are hot for Jesus Christ, there is nothing that is like that life!”

Michele Bachmann’s evangelical convictions emerged after meeting her future husband, Marcus, a born-again activist who worked with her on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. They married after Michele earned her law degree from Oral Roberts University. “I thought to myself, Oooh. I don’t even like this guy,” Michele reflected before worshippers at a megachurch. “And he thought, ‘Oooh, I’m 22. I don’t want to get married. I don’t think I even like her…’ And so we obeyed God and we honored Him in our relationship. And pretty soon some romantic things started happening. And then we got married.” While his wife’s conservative political activities intensified, Marcus stayed behind the scenes, setting homosexuals on the straight path at his “Christian counseling” center. Besides their five sons and daughters, the Bachmanns have raised 23 foster children.

Michele Bachmann entered local politics during the early 1990’s through EdWatch, a right-wing group in Minnesota that vowed to remake the country’s “entire education system.” She founded a publicly funded Christian charter school where creationism was taught in biology classes and, according to the Minneapolis City Pages, students were forbidden from viewing the Disney movie Aladdin because it supposedly contained anti-Christian themes. After spearheading a failed right-wing takeover attempt of the Stillwater, Minnesota, school board, Bachmann won a state senate seat in 2000 with the backing of several churches in her district.

Bachmann shunned most mainstream reporters upon entering office, opting instead for regular spots on right-wing radio. In 2004, Bachmann made a series of appearances on the radio show of Jan Markell, a self-proclaimed “Jew for Jesus,” attempting to rally supporters in favor of a federal ban on same-sex marriage. “This is a very serious matter,” Bachmann proclaimed on Markel’s show in 2004, “because it is our children who are the prize for this [gay] community, they are specifically targeting our children.”

A year later, Bachmann filed a police report claiming two vengeful lesbian constituents kidnapped her in a public restroom. As Bachmann’s recollections of the incident grew increasingly contradictory and hazy, the episode ballooned into a mini-scandal known in Minnesota political circles as “Bathroomgate.” The police never even investigated Bachmann’s compliant.

In 2006, with the congressional midterm elections approaching, Bachmann announced that God “called [her] to run for the United States Congress.” She easily vanquished a political neophyte, Patty Wetterling, who conducted a lackluster campaign that avoided homing in on Bachmann’s by now extensive history of gaffes. Arriving in Washington, Bachmann hired three full-time press secretaries to transform her into a national media star.

Yet the highly controversial statements continued. During a St. Cloud Times podcast in early 2007, Bachmann claimed exclusive knowledge of a secret Iranian plan to partition half of Iraq. After meeting Gov. Sarah Palin last summer in Alaska, Bachmann declared that “warmth” from a pipeline running through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would make the area a “meeting ground and ‘coffee klatch’ for the caribou.” Just months later, during a House hearing on the mortgage foreclosure crisis engulfing her district, Bachmann read aloud from an editorial blaming “blacks and other minorities” for causing the epidemic.

Then came Bachmann’s notorious Hardball gaffe. Within days of Bachmann’s remarks, a flood of donations poured into the coffers of her Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, a Methodist minister and former state transportation secretary. Overnight, Tinklenberg pulled even in the polls, and the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee yanked its advertising from Bachmann’s district. The NRCC’s retreat infuriated the religious right, which has promoted Bachmann with as much intensity as any female politician in recent history, even Sarah Palin.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Christian right’s leading Beltway lobbying outfit, the Family Research Council, fired off an angry letter to NRCC chairman Tom Cole, accusing him of “abandoning social conservative candidates and the issues for which they stand, particularly if they are championed by some of the most promising female legislators in the Congress.” Warren Smith, one of the evangelical right’s leading syndicated columnists, complained to me that the NRCC are “cowards” who abandoned the party’s brightest star to the ravages of the liberal media. A writer for the top-rated right-wing blog, RedState.org, echoed Smith’s grievances. “Let’s just call Tom Cole…what he is,” blogger Erik Erickson wrote. “A douchebag.”

Thrown on the defensive, Bachmann’s campaign waited three long days to respond. The unusually high attrition rate among Bachmann’s staff may have contributed to her campaign’s flatfooted reaction (10 of her original 14 congressional staffers have quit for unknown reasons). When Bachmann finally did answer the unprecedented storm of press inquiries, she issued a mea culpa. “I may not always get my words right,” Bachmann pleaded in a campaign commercial" target="_blank">campaign commercial “but I know my heart is right—because my heart is for you.”

A Minnesota Public Radio poll released on October 25 provided another rebuke—Bachmann was still dead even with Tinklenberg. Even if Bachmann ekes out a victory, her difficulties in a solidly conservative district represent a repudiation of the tactics that once propelled Republicans into power across the Heartland. “Real America” is beginning to get real in a new way.