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01.22.11

Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Agenda Will Disrupt the GOP

The Minnesota congresswoman has never shied from controversy, but her latest efforts to represent Tea Party interests are disrupting Boehner's push for the Republicans to rule effectively—and threatening the party's unity. By Newsweek's Andrew Romano.

Plus, watch video of 9 notorious State of the Union moments.

Michele Bachmann has certainly been keeping busy.

Within hours of winning her third congressional term in November, the colorful Minnesota Republican began campaigning for conference chair, the No. 4 position in the House GOP leadership. Why? Because "constitutional conservatives"—like her and, presumably, unlike the rest of John Boehner's team—"deserve a loud and clear voice!" A few weeks later, news leaked that Bachmann would be traveling to Iowa for a fundraiser—and that "nothing," according to her spokesman, "is off the table." Asked whether she was considering a presidential run, Bachmann told ABC News  "I'm going to Iowa—there's your answer."

Then on Friday Bachmann announced that even though Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is slated to deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address, she would be giving her own online rebuttal on behalf of the Tea Party Express "shortly after" Ryan's speech concludes.

Bachmann's post-election maneuvering isn't particularly surprising; the ultraconservative Minnesotan, who by one estimate appears on national cable once every nine days, is always looking for new ways to get attention. But the response her scheming has received in top GOP circles—a response that would best be described as arctic—suggests that the battle between disgruntled, absolutist Tea Party activists (who want to blow the system up) and their more realistic representatives in Washington (who plan to work within it) is only beginning.

Consider how rank-and-file Republicans have reacted to Bachmann's recent displays of ambition. As soon as the congresswoman launched her conference-chair campaign, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence—the Indiana pol she would be succeeding in the position—endorsed her rival, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling. Boehner put Hensarling on the GOP's transition team, and left Bachmann out. Sarah Palin declined to endorse Bachmann, with whom she campaigned over the summer. And Ryan circulated a letter to lawmakers and recently elected Republicans asking them to support Hensarling over his opponent. After awhile, Bachmann took the hint and bowed out.

But while Bachmann is a genius at rallying the troops—and convincing them to give her their money—she's never displayed the slightest skill at (or interest in) turning her small-government rhetoric into a reality by, say, proposing or passing significant legislation.

The news that Bachmann was elbowing into the presidential spotlight was greeted much the same way: with sighing, scoffing, and the occasional burst of speculation about what she's "really up to." As one National Review commenter perceptively put it, she "know[s] that casual White House talk can help build up some momentum outside of her small, safe House district that she can use to build a Senate campaign. She wants a Senate seat in 2012 or 2014." Few people, in other words, consider her a credible challenger.

But the most revealing moment will undoubtedly come on January 25, when Bachmann faces off against Ryan. Even though they're both die-hard conservatives, the two SOTU responders reflect conflicting visions of where the Republican Party should be focusing its energies going forward. The selection of Ryan, a wonky Wisconsinite whose Roadmap for America's Future calls on Republicans to tackle the country's long-term debt by remaking Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, suggests that right now, Boehner and Co. are less interested in political grandstanding and knee-jerk opposition than in translating their campaign slogans about fiscal responsibility into actual legislation (or, at the very least, creating the impression that's what they're interested in). As Boehner told The New Yorker late last year, 2011 "is going to be probably the first really big adult moment [for Republicans]. You can underline 'adult.'" Ryan reinforces the "hey, we're grownups" message.

Bachmann, however, does not. A recent analysis by the Pulitzer Prize-winning watchdog site PolitiFact shows that of the 13 times she's been fact-checked, "seven of her claims [have been found] to be false and six have been found to be ridiculously false," says PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair. "I don't know anyone else that we have checked, more than a couple times, that has never earned anything above a false. She is unusual in that regard." Among Bachmann's greatest hits: saying that Obama will hike taxes on small businesses that make $250,000 ("pants on fire"); claiming that "the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day" ("false"); and declaring that in the 1970s, "the swine flu broke out… under another Democrat, President Jimmy Carter" ("pants on fire"). Beyond all the easily disprovable falsehoods, Bachmann is famous for simply saying outrageous things: that homosexuality is a "dysfunction"; that Obama is turning America into a "nation of slaves"; that conservatives should "slit their wrists" and be "blood brothers" to defeat health-care reform.

But while Bachmann is a genius at rallying the troops—and convincing them to give her their money—she's never displayed the slightest skill at (or interest in) turning her small-government rhetoric into a reality by, say, proposing or passing significant legislation. In many ways, that makes her the emblematic politician for our niche-media age. When success is measured by the intensity of your following as opposed to its size—and when Twitter, Facebook, and Fox News let politicians easily reach their most intense audiences with incendiary soundbites—it's no wonder so many of them wind up serving less as actual legislators than as conduits for a message.

Watch 9 Notorious State of the Union MomentsNow that the midterms are over, however, the newly empowered GOP establishment clearly wants to tone down the hyperbolic PR and show that it, too, can engage in "adult" problem-solving. The story of the next two years will be the story of whether the Republican Party can shush its big-talking "Bachmann side" long enough for its more practical "Ryan side" to negotiate with Democrats and get stuff done, or whether the Tea Party types who lap up Bachmann's erroneous rhetoric will torpedo the GOP's efforts to enact its agenda. Tune in January 25, and let the games begin.

Andrew Romano is a senior writer for Newsweek. He reports on politics, culture, and food for the print and Web editions of the magazine and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC. His 2008 campaign blog, Stumper, won MINOnline's Best Consumer Blog award and was cited as one of the cycle's best news blogs by both Editor & Publisher and the Deadline Club of New York. Follow Andrew on Twitter.