08.12.11

Michele Bachmann’s Promise and Peril

The congresswoman’s charm and charisma have made her an Iowa frontrunner, but her misstatements could undermine her shot at the nomination. Jill Lawrence reports.

You have only to listen to Iowa voters to understand why Michele Bachmann is doing so well in this state. And you have only to listen to Bachmannin this week’s debate and at her follow-up appearancesto understand the deeply risky and problematic nature of her presidential candidacy.

Some 100 people awaiting Bachmann on Friday, sitting in white folding chairs in the parking lot of the Sports Page Grill here in Indianola, Iowa, talk about abortion, education, authenticity. Many are still shopping for a candidate. “I want somebody to take charge of this country and listen to the people,” says Ralph Shaw, 61. Sherry Larson, 60, says she’s “looking for someone truthful who doesn’t just want to have a political position or job … who has values and will stand for them even if the going gets rough.”

Neither they nor those sitting near them are worried about electability. “In my opinion, if any one of the Republican candidates can’t beat Obama, we deserve another four years of him,” says Gary Denniston, 70. New Yorker John Rhodesvisiting his son Ryan, a Bachmann backer who founded the Iowa Tea Partycan’t resist throwing in the last word: “I think Mickey Mouse could beat him.”

Cut to Bachmann’s arrival. The Minnesota congresswoman’s brightly painted campaign bus pulls into the parking lot at just the right angle to form a perfect backdrop to the sunny, midday event. Speakers blare Elvis Presley’s energetic version of Chuck Berry’s "Promised Land" as Bachmann descends from the bus and plunges into handshaking and autograph signing. Her hair and makeup exude glamour. Her stylish, short, black sleeveless dress is somewhere between flirty and businesslike—perfect for a summer day on the campaign trail. Perfect as well is her propa dollar bill that she folds and refolds to illustrate the 43 cents she says the country borrows for every dollar it spends, and the 12 percent drop in the value of a dollar since President Obama took office.

If Standard & Poor’s graded stagecraft, Bachmann would be a cinch for an AAA rating. But then she starts to talk, making a series of assertions that run the gamut from inaccurate to really out there. It’s clear in Indianola that she either hasn’t read or hasn’t heeded any of the fact-checking reports on the debate. A sampling:

If Standard & Poor’s graded stagecraft, Bachmann would be a cinch for an AAA rating.
  • “We saw a blank check given to President Obama for $2.4 trillion. And what did we get in return? $21 billion inmaybecuts in the future.” As many have pointed out, raising the debt limit by $2.4 trillion is not a blank check for Obama, it’s to allow borrowing for spending that Congress has already approved. As for the $21 billion, that’s for 2012, a deliberately slow start to cutbacks so as not to further weaken the fragile economy. Congress has approved more than $900 billion in cuts and named a supercommittee to come up with another $1.5 trillion in further savings and revenues by Christmas.
  • S&P’s thinking in downgrading the U.S. credit rating was that “we’re not so sure that you’re going to be able to pay back your debt.” Actually, no. The thinking expressed by the ratings agency was that the U.S. political system had become dysfunctional and might not be able to get future deficits under control. Even as Bachmann spoke, repeating her boast that the downgrade vindicated her opposition to any increase in the debt ceiling, an S&P official told Politico that such brinksmanship was a factor in the downgrade. “That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable,” said Senior Director Joydeep Mukherji. “This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns.”
  • “Obamacare” is socialized medicine. “Socialized medicine is never going to work,” Bachmann said in Indianola. But private coverage is at the center of the law, and insurance companies helped shape it.
  • “President Obama’s planning to have Medicare go away. If there’s anyone planning to take Medicare away, it’s Obama.” Bachmann said this to Jim Dawson, a small-business owner worried about all the talk in Washington of cutting Social Security and Medicare. Both parties are in fact discussing cuts to these entitlement programs. Most Republicansincluding Bachmannhave voted to turn Medicare into a voucher program that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects will lag behind premium prices and cost future seniors thousands of dollars they wouldn’t pay under the current policy. By contrast, “Obamacare” attempts to wring savings almost entirely on the provider side; beneficiaries are shielded.

Does any of this matter in the GOP nomination race? Maybe not in Iowa. Maybe not to true believers like state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who introduced Bachmann admiringly in Indianola as “the real deal.” But fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty may have laid out a road map and offered cover to those trying to stop Bachmann when he said in Thursday’s Fox debate: “It is an indisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent.”

Bachmann considers her fidelity to principles, and her ferocity in fighting for them, to be accomplishments in themselves. Here’s what she said Friday: “We have to have a proven track record of somebody who’s actually delivered in the fight. And I have delivered because I have been in every fight.”

That sounds like the mantra of a protest candidate, not a prospective president. Or, as former senator Rick Santorum put it, “showmanship, not leadership.”

Polls show that Bachmann is leading in Iowa, but trailing in other pivotal early nominating states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. Nationally, she’s in single digits among Republicans when about-to-declare candidate Rick Perry is included in the lineup. As for beating Obama, if the election were held today, that wouldn’t be so easy for any Republican, much less Mickey Mouse. Polls suggest Mitt Romney comes closest to pulling it off at this point.

Inside the Beltway, the pundit class is acutely aware of the stakes and the numbers. One former Republican House member, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, lost a battle for self-control on his morning show Friday while discussing Bachmann’s debt-ceiling recalcitrance. “Michele Bachmann is a joke,” he declared. “Her candidacy is a joke, and anybody that sits here and says she has any chance of winning anything is out of their mind.”

There’s a separate reality in Iowa. In this state, a large proportion of caucus goers care most about a candidate’s convictions. Bachmann, running almost entirely on hers, is a real contender for their support in Saturday's straw poll in Ames. The question is whether she is nearing a turning point, one at which presidential-level scrutiny and political hardball start to take a toll on her candidacy.