Is She For Real?

Michele Bachmann has surged in the polls since announcing her presidential candidacy last month at the CNN New Hampshire Debate. The Des Moines Register poll put her in a dead heat against front runner Mitt Romney in Iowa. Public Policy Polling has her in second place inNew Hampshire. The media consider her a serious contender for the Republican nomination. A skeptical public ask: is she for real?

Most think she must win Iowa. The state is made for Bachmann: she was born and raised in Waterloo, shares the social conservative worldview of most caucus goers, and is a retail politician in a state where voters expect presidential candidates to press the flesh, knock on doors, and eat in local diners.

Powerline’s Scott Johnson, a Minneapolis tax attorney and longtime Bachmann watcher, says her skill at retail politics has allowed her to survive smear campaigns from the Left. The most notorious attempt came in 2008 after Bachmann appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” and questioned Barack Obama’s beliefs, wondering if he shared anti-American views. Liberal groups flooded $1.5 million into the campaign coffers of her opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, in an effort to knock off the first term Republican. Bachmann eked out a three point victory on Election Day.

Liberals have been trying to shut Bachmann up since she got into Minnesota politics in the late 1990s. She became an education reform advocate after seeing her daughter coloring posters in an 11th grade algebra class. Appalled at the watered down academic standards, she decided to run for the local school board in 1999.

She lost that contest but remained active in local Republican politics. A year later she challenged her state senator Gary Laidig, an eighteen year GOP incumbent. Fed up with the status quo, Bachmann put in name in nomination, gave a rousing five minute oration at the nominating convention for the state senate, and ran away with the party’s nomination. She won 61% of the primary vote and sailed through in the general election.

She became a vocal social conservative while serving in the Minnesota legislature. She championed foster care (she has raised 23 foster children), traditional marriage, and the right-to-life. In 2005, she supported the teaching of creationism, in addition to evolution, in public schools. She called the scientific community’s support of evolution dogmatic and condemned its censorship of creationism.

In 2006, Bachmann made a run for the U.S. House of Representatives when Congressman Mark Kennedy left his seat to run for the U.S. Senate.

2006 was a horrible year for Republicans: The GOP was tarred by the unpopular war in Iraq, Mark Foley’s sex scandal, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the failed presidency of George W. Bush. Democrats won back control of Congress for the first time since 1994. Bachmann won 50% of the vote in Minnesota’s 6th district, and became one of thirteen new Republicans in the Class of 2007.

A freshman congresswoman in a minority party has little ability to shape legislation, so Bachmann turned to the media to advocate her views. She became a fixture on cable television and on conservative talk radio. Her good looks and straight talk made her a go-to-member of the Republican Caucus, serving a role Anthony Weiner would play for the Democrats. Bachmann offered plenty of red meat to the base and became a master of the outside game (excelling on television, as contrasted with the inside game of shaping legislation).

Frequent media appearances made her a target for liberal attack ads. Bachmann became one of the Obama administration’s sharpest critics and one of the most polarizing figures in Congress. She regularly went on television and ripped the president’s liberal policies. Talking on live television also revealed a hyperbolic tendency, opened her up to criticism for gaffes, and prompted Chris Wallace to recently ask her if she was a “flake.” But the media also made her one of Congress’s most recognizable figures and helped her become an incredible fundraiser. Last year she had a $13.5 million war-chest at her disposal in her re-election quest.

It’s no surprise that in the Age of Obama she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Tea Party. Bachmann founded the House Tea Party Caucus in July 2010, and went around the country leading up to the November mid-term elections championing fiscal responsibility and a return to constitutional first principles. This January, Bachmann offered a Tea Party response to the president’s State of the Union address.

She became, in the words of Matt Continetti, The Queen of the Tea Party. But she was a queen without much power. At 55, she was a House member years away from chairing a congressional committee and had little chance of winning a state-wide election in blue-leaning Minnesota. So she decided to use her political celebrity to run for president.

Last month at theNew Hampshiredebate, she received rave reviews for her performance. Many credited her new campaign advisor Ed Rollins, the man who ran Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 and helped Mike Huckabee win Iowa in 2008, for her new-found discipline. Throughout the debate she remained on-message, touted her congressional experience, and re-iterated her conservative social and fiscal views.

She also conducted a weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore. In it, she differentiated herself from Sarah Palin, the populist heroine to many on the Tea Party Right. The headline said it all: “On the beach, I bring Von Mises.” Bachmann said Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, and Ludwig Von Mises shaped her intellectual worldview.

She presented an economic outlook reminiscent of Jack Kemp and the supply-side revolutionaries of the 1970s and 1980s: She plans to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35% to 9%, eliminated the capital gains, death, and alternative minimum taxes, and reduce tax rates across the board and broaden the tax base to bring in more tax revenues.

Echoing Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan, she wants to preserve the social safety net but think the country’s perilous fiscal condition puts everything else on the table. She would have no problem eliminating the Department of Education, for instance—music to many conservatives’ ears.

But she has one serious hindrance that leaves many wondering if she’s all talk and no action: Michele Bachmann has no legislative record to speak of. She has sponsored 40 bills and resolutions since coming to Washington four years ago. None have been signed into law.

This is not an insurmountable hurdle. After all, Gerald Ford spent a quarter century in the House without authoring a piece of legislation. He easily was confirmed as vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation and assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon stepped down in August 1974. But Ford never won a national election either, and was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Bachmann hopes her record and her rhetoric will appeal to Republican primary voters and the president’s job-performance will sink him in a general election. She reminds everyone that she voted against TARP, the stimulus package, cap and trade, and Obamacare.

But some conservatives wonder if she can pass her agenda, and limit government, with her limited experience.

Commentary’s Peter Wehner is one of those skeptics. He criticized Bachmann for ducking questions on entitlement reforms and her banal observations about improving Medicare. Talking points don’t make policy. While Bachmann has mastered the outside game and attracted enormous media attention for her conservative causes, she has no experience shaping policy.

Neither did Barack Obama. Obama won the presidential election based on his media celebrity, had national favorability ratings over 50%, and had super-majorities in both houses of Congress, but struggled to pass his agenda. The media labeled him the orator in chief: still, he spent the first year of his presidency getting his health care legislation through Congress.

Obamacare passed on a party-line vote, but was never popular with the electorate. Critics said the president outsourced the legislation to Congress, and blasted him for refusing to enter the inside game. Perhaps that’s why it was such an uphill battle to pass the legislation. The president never convinced a majority of Americans his proposal was a worthwhile initiative; a recent Rasmussen poll shows 53% of Americans want the legislation repealed.

To reform entitlements and preserve the welfare-state, the next Republican executive must excel at both the outside and the inside game. So far, Bachmann has only mastered the former. She will spend the campaign trying to convince voters she’s serious about policy and ready to tackle the challenges facing the country.

She hasn’t done so, yet. A recent Iowa headline captured the Bachmann phenomena (so far) best: “Bachmann focuses on waffles, not issues in Iowa City.”

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