Michele, You’re No Reagan

There are some superficial similarities between the Minnesota congresswoman and the Republican icon. But Bachmann is a doctrinaire politician who lacks the 40th president’s pragmatism, says Jack W. Germond.

07.11.11 3:07 AM ET

Some of Michele Bachmann’s more devoted followers are depicting her as the lineal successor to Ronald Reagan as the charismatic and committed conservative leader of the Republican Party. But, unhappily for them, it won’t float.

It is easy to see how attractive another personally compelling candidate would be to Republicans who have had no such party leader since Reagan. Neither President Bush I nor President Bush II was ever accused of being exciting. And after he lost the last election, John McCain failed to perform as a titular leader—unless, of course, appearing repeatedly on the Sunday TV talk shows qualifies. Nor is anyone likely to walk through a wall for John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.

It is also easy to find some superficial similarities in candidate Bachmann today and candidate Reagan in 1980. They are the ones who appear to be in living color that contrasts sharply with the bland ecru of their competitors.

Each of them has a penchant for the kind of small gaffes that the press loves to pick apart and the pundits enjoy wringing their hands over. Bachmann has shown a particular gap in her knowledge of American history, mistaking Concord, N.H., for Concord, Mass., and crediting the Founding Fathers with efforts to abolish slavery although both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. She must have been sick that day.

Reagan was always confusing real events with something he saw on a movie screen. Even as he entered the White House he was talking about how racial segregation in the armed services ended with Pearl Harbor, ignoring President Truman’s executive order in 1948—all because he remembered seeing a scene of a black Navy cook coming up on deck and seizing a machine gun to fire back at the Japanese Zeros bombing the fleet.

In both cases, they have been excused by their admirers. When Reagan would string together several gaffes, those who wrote about it found themselves accused of nitpicking the president of the United States. In Bachmann’s case, any attention paid to misstatements is written off by her partisans as part of a concerted press campaign to defeat her.

But the Bachmann-Reagan comparison ends right there. They both may have been attractive on the stump, if given to flights of fancy at times. But Bachmann is clearly locked into the extremism of the Tea Party, and Reagan was never controlled by the dogma of the Republican Party, let alone an ideological political subculture.

By the definitions of the Tea Party, Reagan wasn’t even conservative.

As governor of California he allowed state funding of abortions for indigent women. As president he railed against the “tax-and-spend Democrats” in Congress but joined with them in compromises on domestic programs that involved a whole series of tax increases. As an implacable foe of world communism, he negotiated arms-reduction treaties with the Soviet Union that were widely accepted across party and ideological lines.

James Lake, a key political adviser in both of Reagan’s White House campaigns, said the other day, “He was never doctrinaire. He was trying to find ways to make government work better.”

Michele Bachmann is quite a different cup of tea—an extremist on both social issues and government policy questions. She is, for example, opposed to abortion rights even in cases of rape or incest, and she supports the Tea Party line against all tax increases at any time.

Bachmann is so doctrinaire she seems unlikely to be a serious contender in the general election. But she is compelling enough as a candidate to force the Republicans into some awkward situations in choosing a nominee.

It would be no surprise if there were a few Democrats secretly cheering her on.