Barreling past Iowa’s iconic cornfields aboard a blue campaign bus, Michele Bachmann tries to explain the uncanny political force that has catapulted her from a backbencher in Washington to a leading contender on the presidential trail. She has just finished electrifying a crowd in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, with a folksy assault on a bloated federal government that she and her Tea Party compatriots routinely vow to dismantle. “Obamacare” will be repealed in a Bachmann administration, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota vows. G-men won’t tell you what lightbulbs you can use, either. And more of your hard-earned money will end up in your pocketbooks, not on the ledgers of mindless bureaucrats.
Such refrains have become all too familiar in Bachmann’s other world back in Congress, thanks to the yearlong rise of the Tea Party that just brought Washington to a standstill and the nation to the brink of default. But in Iowa, Bachmann’s simple, black-and-white distillations of complex problems are cheered as refreshing and tough. It’s part of the reason she finds herself favored to finish near the top of the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13, the first political-strength test of the arduous 2012 presidential contest.
Petite and prim, the 55-year-old mother of five delivers her stump speech with the earnestness of a preacher. She pulls out a huge whiteboard and for dramatic effect scrawls just how many zeros can be found in a trillion.
The elderly, the unemployed, the exasperated, and even a few disillusioned Democrats crowd her rallies and cheer her not-going-to-take-it-anymore shtick, even as they recognize some of its inherent contradictions.
“You use the word ‘anger.’ It’s not anger,” Bachmann told NEWSWEEK. Americans aren’t expressing “unhinged anger,” she says. “People are saying the country is not working.”
Married in 1979, Bachmann raised five children in Stillwater, Minn., and eventually fostered 23 kids. She has said her husband directed her to study tax law, and she obliged because “the Lord says: be submissive, wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Asked about her choice of words, she explains, “That means that I respect my husband, and he respects me.” But in a Bachmann White House, she adds, “I would be the decision maker.”
Just months ago, Bachmann was the butt of jokes on late-night TV for her flawed grasp of U.S. history. But all that changed one night this spring when she took the stage at the first major GOP presidential debate with the middle-aged, drab men running for the nomination, and set herself apart with poise and precision. When others meandered or waffled, she shot back with answers that reduced Washington’s dysfunctional gridlock to understandable soundbites.
In Iowa, where she was raised, Bachmann has become the living embodiment of the Tea Party. She and her allies have been called a maniacal gang of knife-wielding ideologues. That’s hyperbole, of course. But the principled rigidity of her position has created some challenges for her campaign.
One is overcoming the perception of hypocrisy. Democrats—and some of Bachmann’s Republican opponents—have noted the gulf between her rhetoric and record. She earned a federal salary as a lawyer for the IRS (an agency despised by the Tea Party), for example. Pressed on whether she took Americans to court to force them to pay back taxes, she answers carefully. “Our employer was the United States Department of Treasury. That’s who paid my salary,” she says. “And the client that we represented was the IRS.” She also says that the job opened her eyes to the “huge bureaucracy and how devastating high taxes are on almost every sector of the economy…farmers and families and small businesses and individuals.”
Bachmann owned a stake in her father-in-law’s farm that received more than $250,000 in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2008. She says that money all stayed with her in-laws. In Congress, she tried to secure more than $3.7 million in federal earmarks for her district—the kind of pet projects she has blamed for excessive spending. And she railed against Obama’s $800 billion–plus Recovery Act as wasteful, then signed a half-dozen letters seeking stimulus funds for local projects. Her requests in 2009 echoed the arguments Republicans lampooned Obama for using. A bridge project could create nearly 3,000 jobs a year, Bachmann wrote, while a highway project would “promote economic prosperity.”
But far more damaging than the charge of double standards may be the growing realization among Americans of just how radical the Tea Party movement really is. The willingness of its most committed members to risk national default for the sake of achieving its political goals has no doubt contributed to the dramatic rise in the number of Americans who view the movement unfavorably. In a New York Times/CBS News poll published on Aug. 5, 40 percent of respondents described their opinion of the Tea Party as “not favorable”—up from 18 percent in April 2010.
At a time of population growth, increasing health-care costs, swelling ranks of retirees, and a sharp and prolonged economic slump—all of which point to the need for increases in federal spending just to meet government’s existing obligations—Bachmann and her Tea Party allies demand that Washington spend less. But they don’t just demand that spending increase less from year to year than previously planned; that’s what Congress and the president agreed to in the deal that ended the debt standoff, to the tune of $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years (albeit followed by a downgrade four days later). Rather, Bachmann and the Tea Party go much further, insisting that the federal government actually shrink over time, spending less money from year to year as its commitments grow.
That means, of course, that its commitments would have to shrivel as well. In the Tea Party’s ideal vision of America, large federal agencies and federal programs would be dismantled and the savings redirected to states with block grants and individuals through lower taxes. Whether that would leave people at the mercy of the freewheeling (and often treacherous) marketplace remains an open and untested question.
Asked if her positions are extreme, Bachmann replies that the Tea Party’s ideals are simply the most rational solutions to a broken and profligate government, and that the only option is to stand tough. “I do not twist in the wind,” she says proudly.
There’s no telling if Republican primary voters will reward such intransigence. Even within the Tea Party itself, Bachmann is a polarizing figure. Many—especially in Iowa, with its high percentage of evangelical Christians—respond rapturously to her combination of antigovernment fervor and religiously inspired moral traditionalism on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But others are more consistent in their distaste for governmental meddling. For Matt Welch, editor in chief of the libertarian Reason magazine, Bachmann isn’t the “queen of the Tea Party.” In fact, he says, “she will have trouble” with its rank and file “if she’s seen as being more concerned about social issues” than cutting the federal budget.
For Bachmann, those issues are personal. Raised a Lutheran, she says she converted to a “living faith” at the age of 16 after attending a prayer meeting with a friend. “All I can say is that, you know, the Holy Spirit knocked on my heart’s door,” Bachmann recalls. “I literally got on my knees with some of my friends and then confessed my sins …I gave my heart to Jesus Christ.”
Other criticisms of her candidacy point to what she’s done since arriving in Washington. “Her record in Congress is…great remarks and great speeches, but in terms of results and accomplishments, nonexistent,” says former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whose presidential campaign has the most to lose in Ames. Bachmann dismisses the critique, hoping to convert a strong showing in the straw poll into momentum among voters and fundraisers elsewhere.
If there’s one threat on the horizon, it’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s expected entrance into the race. He, too, offers evangelical fervor coupled with a stand against big government. But he has something she lacks: an executive record as the longest-serving governor in a state that is thriving in hard times. It doesn’t seem to faze her.
For now, Bachmann revels in the Iowa crowds, which don’t fuss about the missing fine print behind her ideas, the perceived contradictions among them, or their radicalism.
David Dankel, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Obama, came to Ft. Dodge to see Bachmann because he was “tired of paying for everyone else.” In April, Dankel saw his $16-an-hour factory job of 23 years move to Mexico. “I was getting ahead and now I can’t find a job. Obama promised change—well, where is it?”
Sitting on the edge of a metal folding chair in a sweltering parking lot, Donna Fouts, 73, doesn’t seem to care that Bachmann planned to vote against the debt-ceiling compromise that would ensure the arrival of her Social Security check and the military benefits owed to her sons and nephews. “Well, I’m sick of all them other politicians that tell me what to do with my life,” she answers. “Something about her tells me to follow her.”