For a person prone to the occasional political gaffe, Rep. Michele Bachmann can also stay relentlessly on message — traits that have made the tea party favorite both the butt of late-night jokes and a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill.
Days after Mrs. Bachmann made the much-debated claim on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Democrats secretly slipped $105.5 billion in new mandatory spending in the health care overhaul — repeating the charge five times in the same interview — House Speaker John A. Boehner announced that the GOP would seek legislation putting those “slush funds” on the chopping block.
The episode was a reminder of how the Minnesota Republican has been a thorn in the side of both parties, directing rhetorical bombs at Democrats, though just as often hitting her own party leaders with the shrapnel.
Mrs. Bachmann was one of the first to object to answering all the questions on the 2010 census and was a chief organizer of a rally against President Obama’s health care law that drew thousands to the U.S. Capitol.
This year she delivered an unofficial tea party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, leaving some Republicans to question whether she was stepping on the toes of Rep. Paul D. Ryan, who gave the GOP’s official response.
Now she’s aiming criticism at the House GOP’s passage of stopgap spending bills, known as continuing resolutions, saying Republicans shouldn’t be supporting bills that include taxpayer funds for the new health care law and Planned Parenthood.
“Those who voted for the continuing resolution, each one had their own reasons for the way they voted, but I will say that many of those who voted for the resolution, did so for tactical reasons, not necessarily on principle,” she said.
Her provocative approach has earned Mrs. Bachmann throngs of supporters in conservative circles, where she’s viewed as a staunch pro-life advocate who goes to bat for conservative tenets of less government and lower taxes.
“She is a natural full-spectrum conservative: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-Constitution,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and a frequent ally. “It’s in her head, her heart and DNA.”
Sensing the power of the tea party movement early on, Mrs. Bachmann last summer established the Tea Party Caucus in the House. The freshman class of Republicans has boosted the caucus’s numbers to 56 members, and suggests the third-term lawmaker is at the forefront of an ever-larger bloc on Capitol Hill.
“I think each individual comes with their own influence and I think particularly the new freshman who came in came with a wave of support from their constituencies for cutting spending, cutting the deficit and also rolling back the government takeover of healthcare, also known as Obamacare,” Mrs. Bachmann said. “I think the issues that I have focused on the last four years of Congress are ones that the majority coming in to serve as freshman also see as their own issues. So, we are like-minded, we have increased our numbers, and I’m delighted by that.”
Mrs. Bachmann won her first race in 2006, an otherwise bad year for Republicans, becoming the state’s first Republican woman to be elected to the House. She immediately became a target for Democrats, winning re-election with just 46 percent in 2008, a presidential year. But she cruised to a 13-point victory in November and quieted critics who’d cast her as too outside the mainstream for everyday voters.
Anthony G. “Tony” Sutton, Minnesota Republican party chairman, said Mrs. Bachmann’s “rock star” status in her home state derives from the fact that “she doesn’t mince words” and comes off as “someone who is outside the Republican establishment.”
“She taps into that vein of a lot of people who are just fed up with government,” Mr. Sutton said, while making the case that that her supporters include Independents, Democrats and “people who are fed up with the perceived Republican hypocrisy — especially during the Bush administration.”
Other Republicans, though, are concerned that sometimes her personality gets in the way of the party’s message, and that she’s more interested in scoring a headline than getting her facts straight. “Michele Bachmann is for one person and for one person only — Michele Bachmann,” a GOP strategist said. “It’s unfortunate because it clouds up the message that a lot of well-intentioned people want to push and see enacted.”
Ken Martin, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party chairman, said that Mrs. Bachmann has operated that way since she entered the Minnesota state Senate in 2000, after knocking off the 18-year GOP incumbent. While there, she led an unsuccesful effort to ban same-sex marriage.
“It has been the same M.O. for her, which has been get involved in controversial issues and snake a big headline,” Mr. Martin said.
But Mr. Martin also said that Mrs. Bachmann is cut from a different cloth than the some other GOP leaders in the state. She’s not someone who sticks her finger in the air to see which way the political winds are blowing before taking a stand on an issue.
“While I don’t agree with Michele Bachmann on anything, she is very much a true believer [in conservatism],” he said. “The scary thing from my point if view is that she is a true believer and sometimes unwilling to listen to other political views.”
Sitting for the first time in the majority, Mrs. Bachmann said her attention is focused on her constituents, pointing to her effort to clear the regulatory red tape that’s blocked a four-lane highway bridge from being built over a local river currently protected under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
But she also wades into the big national debates, having offered offered bills to lock in place Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, repeal the Wall Street regulations passed by Democrats last year and block the expansion of energy efficient light-bulb standards passed under Mr. Bush.
The whirlwind of activity comes as Mrs. Bachmann ponders a possible presidential bid, taking opportunities to travel to key primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Doug Sachtleben, her spokesman, said Mrs. Bachmann “feels it is important to be part of the conversation in those states and to make the case for replacing President Obama with a president who is committed to a limited government that works within its Constitutional boundaries.”
But her chances took a hit during a recent visit to New Hampshire when she confused the state’s role in the revolutionary war with that of neighboring Massachusetts.
“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world, at Lexington and Concord,” she said at an event held by the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire. “And you put a marker in the ground and paid with the blood of your ancestors.”
Asked about the political misfire, she said, “That was old news, we’re done with that.”
“Some people still like her, but her ability to be taken seriously has been severely diminished,” the strategist said. “Not knowing American history was the latest. I am not a foe, but looking at it through effectiveness.”
Still, some say Bachmann has a legitimate shot to make noise in a Republican primary.
“It’s a long shot to win a primary, but conceivably if the vote is dissipated she can do well in a state like Iowa,” said pollster John Zogby. “She’s got a Midwest persona, a Midwest accent, she has a genuine authenticity about her [as] small business women.”
To which he added, “She’s also a lightning rod, and lightning rods do OK in Iowa on the Republican side.”