Bachmann, Paulsen: Two radically different paths to power

Bachmann in Iowa
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota speaks to about 300 people in Des Moines, Iowa Friday night. Bachmann, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 6th District, is exploring a possible run for president.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Republican U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Michele Bachmann are both relatively new, ambitious members of Minnesota's congressional delegation. But they have chosen two radically different paths to power.

While Paulsen is rising quietly through the congressional ranks, Bachmann has become a fundraising powerhouse and a frequent commentator on cable television. Political observers say there's no consensus on which approach will be more successful in the long run.

Paulsen is just starting his second term. He said the best piece of advice he heard when he got to Congress was: "Show up at the committee hearings. Do your homework. You don't need to seek the limelight to get attention in the media or in the press."

In other words: "Be a workhorse, not a show horse," he said.

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He said he believes his focus on complex issues such as medical technology and economic relations with South Korea got him a spot on the Ways & Means Committee, widely considered the most powerful committee in the U.S House of Representatives.

There is a tradition of Republicans from Minnesota's 3rd Congressional District serving on Ways & Means, but former U.S. Reps. Jim Ramstad and Bill Frenzel both had to wait until their third terms to win a seat.

Paulson grinned last week as he chatted with colleagues at his first committee meeting.

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"The Ways & Means Committee is the committee that is at the epicenter of a lot of these big issues," Paulsen said. "It's about exports and what we can do in Minnesota to grow our jobs. And it's going to have a heavy hand in determining what our tax policy, tax reform is going to be."

As persistent as Paulsen has been behind the scenes, he has not spent much time in the national spotlight in his first two years.

A search through an online database of national television news transcripts finds only three references to Paulsen over the last two years. Run that same search for Rep. Michele Bachmann, and you will find hundreds.

"I've been very straight-forward," Bachmann said when asked to explain her celebrity. "I've been unapologetic about fighting for the people back in my district. And I think perhaps because I haven't just danced around questions, I answer them fairly straight-forward, that might have had some impact."

Erik Paulsen
Erik Paulsen poses for photos on stage after his acceptance speech for 3rd district congressional seat at the Minnesota Republican Party headquarters in the Sheraton Hotel in Bloomington, Minn.
MPR Photo/Chris Kelleher

Bachmann is beginning her third term, and she won a seat on the House Intelligence Committee. But that's not the main source of her power.

Her re-election bid last year shattered previous fundraising records for a U.S. House race. She hauled in more than $13 million. House Speaker John Boehner raised less than $10 million.

Bachmann's bid for a spot in Republican caucus leadership fizzled, but that hasn't slowed her down. Her profile continues to rise, thanks to speculation she might run for president.

Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks to the media at an election party at the Sheraton in Bloomington, Minn. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Former U.S. Rep. Frenzel can't imagine a junior member rising so rapidly to national prominence when he was in Congress. Frenzel was a Republican in the Minnesota delegation during the '70s and '80s.

Back then, the main path to power was the one Paulsen has chosen.

"His is a longer, slower path than Mrs. Bachmann's," said Frenzel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "She can rocket to the top on any given day. And Erik will be moving along, I think, slowly and successfully."

Frenzel compares it to Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare. But he is not ready to say 'slow and steady will win the race' when Bachmann is in the running.

Erik Paulsen
Erik Paulsen speaks at during an election night party at the Sheraton in Bloomington, Minn., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

"I don't want to degrade her or say that the turtle is going to catch her," Frenzel said. "Maybe it won't."

But Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it depends on the definition of power.

"If we want to define power the way the culture now would define power, which is: Who's the bigger celebrity? Of course Michele Bachmann wins," Ornstein said. "But if what we're looking at is impact on the society, then the path that Paulsen has taken is probably more likely to leave the lasting legacy."

Norman Ornstein
Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington discusses the definition of political power.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Ornstein predicts Bachmann's outspoken, uncompromising conservatism will make it hard for her to actually influence legislation.

But Bachmann has no plans to change her style.

"I am not ashamed, and I don't apologize for speaking out on these unconstitutional acts that the federal government has taken us through," Bachmann said. "We need more members of Congress who are willing to put their political seats on the line."