Actor Tim Robbins, long considered the poster boy for Hollywood liberals, along with his wife Susan Sarandon, once donated $5,000 to ten Republican congressional candidates ? one of which is currently running for president.
Can you guess which one?
No, it wasn’t “moderate” Mitt Romney, or even Ron Paul, the long-time libertarian whose views on foreign policy largely dovetail with Robbins’. Surprise! It was none other than Rep Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party darling who stole the show during last Monday’s televised GOP candidate debate in New Hampshire
Robbins has never explained his contribution to Bachmann’s re-election campaign in Minnesota in 2006. But it does seems to say something about the unusual appeal that this 57-year old former Democrat ? she backed Jimmy Carter for President in 1976 before switching to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in 1980 – has on many people who might otherwise disagree with her political views.
Not much is known outside of Minnesota about Bachmann, in fact. But she seems like the perfect person to head up a House caucus of freshman representatives who owe their victories to more to grassroots fervor and ideological zeal than to heavy support from the GOP party establishment – though James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Bush mastermind Karl Rove did offer her early support.
Bachmann is fond of pointing out ? somewhat inaccurately ? that the Tea party is comprised of Democrats and independents as well as Republicans who are first-time voters, and generally new to politics. In this respect, they resemble someone very much like herself, in fact.
Bachmann came to organized politics quite late, long after she’d raised most of her 5 children, and 23 foster children ? a part of her profile that could give her unusual appeal as more voters get to know her ? and not just in the GOP. (She’s quietly criticized Sarah Palin for dragging the Palin children into her political orbit, which Bachmann says reflects a lack of “priorities”).
Back in 1999, a local political operative in Washington County suggested that Bachmann run for a position on the Stillwater school board. Bachmann had already started a local charter school several years earlier, but had never thought of running for elected office. Though she lost, she quickly caught the political “bug.”
Two terms in the Minnesota State Senate followed, and in 2006, she ran for Congress, representing the Minnesota “Twin Cities.” (Minneapolis/St. Paul), and won. She became, in fact, the first Republican woman ever elected to the House of Representative from Minnesota, a dyed-in-the-wool Blue state, home to the progressive Farm Labor Party, and prominent native liberal sons like Hubert Humphrey.
Amazingly, that was just 5 short years ago.
Bachmann’s collaboration with Palin has tended to obscure her own distinct trajectory. She’s worked with Palin to publicize the need to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Reffuge to oil drilling, and it was her citation of an obscure article by a conservative commentator that led Palin to publicize the threat of “death panels” being set up under ObamaCare. Palin also campaigned for Bachmann for re-election in November 2010, when she won her third term.
Otherwise, the trajectory of the two women ? to say nothing of their emerging personas – couldn’t be more different. Bachmann has dedicated herself to mastering the Washington political world at the very time that Palin decided to resign as Alaska governor to launch a brand new career as a media and political celebrity.
Clearly, both women share a reputation as spunky and deeply conservative Christian firebrands, but Bachmann is deeply immersed in the Tea Party, and remains fiercely loyal to it. Palin, on the other hand, has frequently chosen to back GOP establishment candidates seeking to defeat their Tea Party rivals ? which has made her sympathies, compared to Bachmann’s, increasingly suspect.
But the biggest difference, in fact, is the assessment of critics and supporters alike of their political skills. As Bachmann showed last Monday, she’s not a figure who feels compelled to hide from the media, or to avoid the high-pressure, rough-and-tumble, give-and-take of a nationally televised debate. She can be well-prepared, and nimble on her feet, and is increasingly more likely to issue a compelling riff – than make an embarrassing gaffe.
A recent CNN poll comparing the approval ratings of all of the current and prospective GOP candidates found former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani at the top, at 55%, followed by Mitt Romney, at 39%. Palin also had a 39% rating, but with 52% disapproving – a net negative approval rating of 12%.
Compare that to Bachmann: only 28% approve, but only 24% disapprove, with a whopping 48% saying they either don’t know enough about her to have an opinion, or aren’t sure which way they tilt.
Bachmann may not be a blank canvass exactly, and her numbers reveal an obvious potential for polarization. But they also suggest that she hasn’t yet fallen into the ranks of the unredeemable, as Palin ? with only 9% either not knowing her or not having an opinion ? clearly has.
And there’s no telling how far she might get, in fact. Some pundits have assumed – wrongly – that Bachmann might make a run at winning the Iowa caucuses and even the bellwether South Carolina primary, because evangelicals dominate both contests. And that Mitt Roney or another relative GOP moderate almost surely has New Hampshire sewed up.
But that’s a misreading of just how persnickety New Hampshire – which has long been home to the Angry Right, long before the rise of the Tea Party – can be. Remember Pat Buchanan? He beat Johh McCain in New Hampshire in 2000 after nearly beating Bob Dole there four years earlier.
And the Granite State is unusually sympathetic to women – one of the reasons that Hillary Clinton, after a dismal performance in Iowa, managed to push past Barack Obama in 2008, breathing new life into her flagging candidacy. Romney’s leading in New Hampshire, but polls show that his support is exceeding “soft.” It would be wrong to count Bachmann out even there.
Bachmann’s performance was so good last Monday, in fact, that many observers are wondering if she effectively knocked Palin out of the race. Palin undoubtedly still has ambitions of being a GOP king-maker ? one of several, in fact – and she may well end up becoming one of Bachmann’s biggest boosters down the road.
But it’s Bachmann’s who’s emerging as the Republican Joan of Arc. And judging from her break-out performance last Monday – and the buzz that’s still growing – she has every intention of getting herself crowned Queen.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org