Politico analyzes Bachmann's influence on GOP

Congresswoman Bachmann in Des Moines
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks to a crowd at the Iowans for Tax Relief PAC Reception in Des Moines, Ia. Friday, Jan. 21, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

It's been a big week for potential GOP presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. The 6th District lawmaker traveled to Iowa a week ago to meet with supporters, and on Tuesday delivered the tea party response to President Obama's State of the Union address.

In the current edition of the online journal Politico.com, reporter Jonathan Allen delivers an interesting analysis of how members of the Republican Party view Bachmann, her constituency, and her potential.

Allen spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Friday.

Tom Crann: What was the mainstream Republican reaction in general to Michele Bachmann's tea party response?

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Jonathan Allen: It depends on how you talk to people. If they're talking on the record with their name associated, you get one version. If you're talking to them on background, where you're able to identify them as a member of Congress or a Republican establishment member, you might get another response.

I think there was some frustration with Ms. Bachmann that she distracted from the official Republican response which was given by Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. There were a couple of people who've said that. (U.S. Rep.) Joe Walsh put his name to it ... He's a ... new tea party-backed congressman from Illinois.

(U.S. Rep.) Jason Chaffetz from Utah said much the same thing, that he thought the timing was poor, that she'd sort of stepped on Paul Ryan. And then came out the next day (and) issued a statement through Bachmann's office reversing himself, saying he hadn't quite understood what the timing of her speech was versus that of Paul Ryan's, and basically did a 180 in a few hours time.

Crann: What do you make of that, either the 180 or the fact that when people are willing to be more frank, they're not willing to give you their name and go on the record? What's going on here?

Allen: I think there are Republicans who are, for reasons of envy or just sheer disdain, a little bit sick of Bachmann's attention, of her grandstanding, but at the same time, they're a little more afraid of her following. I mean she raised ... $13.4 million in the last election cycle, which is just a phenomenal amount of money for a House race. Most candidates, if they can raise a couple million dollars, are tickled pink.

And so this is somebody who brings a forceful, energized, loyal base with her. And they are not afraid to call members' offices. They're not afraid to try to organize opposition to them in their own districts. And I think there's a certain level of wariness from Republican members that they just don't really want to spark any kind of backlash. They don't want to give anybody any ideas that they are somehow not loyal enough to the cause, whether that cause is Michele Bachmann or the one that she represents, or the ones that she claims to represent.

Crann: Do you think that fear is overriding the sense from some Republicans that she, in fact, might have been slightly disloyal by issuing her own statement and not standing behind Paul Ryan's statement?

Allen: I don't think it's seen as an act of disloyalty, so much as her perhaps being too willing to promote herself at the expense of the party -- not in a sort of way in which she's attempting to undermine the party, but maybe just where her priorities, I think, to some of our colleagues, are not in right place.

That said, a lot of other folks believe she had every right to say what she wanted to say. One member said to me the other day, "Look, after the State of the Union, most politicians rush to cameras, try to get 5 to 15 seconds of response time beamed back to their home district, and are lucky if they get on the news."

Michele Bachmann happened to get picked up by CNN, so this member said, "More power to her," that she was able to draw that attention. And it wasn't necessarily her fault for being more interesting to the news media, and perhaps to the viewing audience, than some other folks are.

Crann: When you're talking about this fear of criticizing Michele Bachmann or the tea party by mainstream Republicans here, what are you really talking about when it comes to that? Because fear is kind of a strong word.

Allen: The fear isn't necessarily of Michele Bachmann. I've never heard anybody say that she's been threatening. I've never heard anybody say that she's been mean to them. I think the fear is really of bringing unwanted backlash, bringing unwanted attention on oneself from people who are very excited and very energized by Michele Bachmann, and willing very much to go out and defend her.

And so these Congress members don't really want the trouble of having to answer angry phone calls, or to have to worry that people in their own districts who like Michele Bachmann will suddenly turn on them, you know, one-time supporters suddenly becoming potential primary opponents.

Crann: Is this really about the fear of being challenged by a tea party challenger in the next cycle?

Allen: That's right. For most of these members of Congress, they come from heavily Democratic or Republican districts. In the case of those who are on the Republican side, these are very conservative districts. And the one thing they have to worry about is a primary challenge. And one way in which to invite attention and money is to get on the wrong side of the conservative base. And right now the tea party is the conservative base in a lot of districts in the country, and Michele Bachmann is a hero to a lot of tea party activists.

We've seen it out in the Capitol lawn, people chanting her name, people trying to get things signed by her, trying to get a hug or a kiss on the cheek from her during events. So Michele Bachmann has become a real force of nature with the very folks who could generate primary challenges to Michele Bachmann's colleagues, whether or not she's making threats. And again, I have not heard her ever do that or anybody talk about her doing that. Her followers are a potential threat to people who stand in her way.

Crann: Her statements routinely get fact checked and criticized, whether it's CNN debunking some of her claims, reporting we've done at MPR, the various fact check websites. She does not score well there. So, a lot of opponents think that will hurt her. Has it, in any way?

Allen: It hasn't so far. She seems to be doing just fine, particularly obviously in her own district, the 6th there in Minnesota. She's now in her third term. I think people thought that after her first term, she was going to have real problems. And then after the second term, and then this time Tarryl Clark, the Democrats thought was their savior to come get Michele Bachmann out of that seat, and it's never been a problem for her. She raises more and more money each time.

I think on a national level, it makes her sometimes the subject of ridicule to have her comments shown to be untrue. But I don't think it's something that at this point is bothering her a whole lot, and it certainly hasn't stopped the political train that she's driving.

Crann: Could the fact that she does get routinely criticized by fact-checking websites for some of her statements -- do you think that could hurt any aspirations of a presidential run at some point?

Allen: Absolutely that could be hurtful for a presidential run. The closer you get to becoming a leader of the country, the more everything you say is scrutinized.

And we've seen this in campaign after campaign, the people who say things that are untrue, ... particularly the same untrue thing repeatedly, are often rejected by voters because they want to have some faith that the person that's leading the country is at least telling them the truth most of the time, or telling them most of the truth most of the time.

Crann: Here in Minnesota we have two Republicans spending time in Iowa. Neither has declared for the presidency in 2012. We're talking about former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, as well as Rep. Bachmann. Do they have different appeals with the Republican base?

Allen: Absolutely. I don't think you could pick two more different potential candidates than Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, and they come from the same state.

Michele Bachmann is fiery and energetic and charismatic, and somebody who really just generates a lot of enthusiasm. It's really hard to stop watching when she's speaking. She's really sort of a riveting figure ... and she's extremely conservative. There's probably no issue in which she's not very conservative.

Tim Pawlenty is a very low-key guy. I think in a Republican primary he will play up his conservative credentials. But at the same time, we know he's been more moderate as a governor and when he was campaigning for governor than certainly Michele Bachmann is, and certainly I think than a lot of other people who would be running in the Republican primary are.

Whether that relates to his position on clean energy or some other matters, he's got ... that very straight-on demeanor, the "tell you the truth" kind of guy. He's got a great, up-from-his-bootstraps sort of story and narrative.

These are very, very different characters. And it's interesting and fascinating, and probably good for the diversity of the state of Minnesota, that it can produce such two different candidates. And of course, if you look at the history of Minnesota presidential candidates, and you go back and look at Walter Mondale and some others, you see a tremendous diversity of type of folks coming out of Minnesota into the national political arena.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)