Dear Wingnut: How do you account for Michele Bachmann? I just don't understand.
First, let me say how gratified I was by the response to the initial column in this series. I hope, in the days to come, we will be able to engage in a dialogue that will explain to you the mysteries of conservative thought.
This week the editors have asked me to answer a question that more than one reader asked: explain Michele Bachmann. As in, can you explain the behavior of the Republican representative from Minnesota's 6th Congressional District? The easy answer would be to say no and then move on to something else. But that wouldn't make for much of a column, so let me try.
Bachmann is a conservative activist, someone whose interests include both social and economic policy. Now she and I, to the best of my recollection, have never met, but the extensive coverage some of her remarks have received makes me feel as though I know her.
I suppose your interest is generated by some of the things she has said that strike you as, well, extreme. Like when she recently referred to her desire that people in Minnesota be "armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax" before going on to cite Jefferson's observation that a little revolution, now and again, is probably a good thing.
The way I saw it reported, with convenient ellipses and commentary inserted in all the right places, you would have thought she had issued a call for an armed uprising. What she meant, of course, is that the people of Minnesota -- where electricity production is heavily dependent on coal -- needed to be armed with information so they could argue effectively against the introduction of a tax on carbon or a cap and trade scheme that would hurt her state's workers and working families.
I am also aware of her assertion, as reported by Salon and countless other outlets, that children might be bound for "re-education camps." That strikes me as mere hyperbole -- besides, that couldn't happen unless we went to year-round public schooling, which the teachers' unions all oppose.
"I haven't purposely been trying to be inflammatory," Bachmann said in one recent interview. "I'm trying to just explain to the American people what's happening here in Washington, D.C." But, and this is just my opinion, she might be better off if she worried more about her constituent service and less about making a splash in the media.
It is true that many conservatives love her, because she is not afraid to get out in front on an issue and make a big splash. By stepping out in front, however, she often leaves the party's congressional leadership trailing after her instead of leading the discussion. And, by leaving them behind, it makes them question the wisdom of defending her.
At some level, she is becoming a self-parody. Some of her comments have put a big, red media bull's-eye right in the middle of her forehead. And, deserved or not, this causes everything she says to be treated with a greater degree of scrutiny than she probably welcomes or than is good for her. That said, conservatives love what they perceive to be her fearlessness, the same quality that no doubt provokes the wrath of liberals who cannot stand to see an attractive woman stand up for what have come to be known as traditional values. When it comes to the women's movement, Michele Bachmann is so far off the reservation she might as well be in France -- and as Sarah Palin and other conservative women holding political office have found out, that can be a lonely place to be.
One conservative colleague with whom I discussed this question told me that Bachmann was "energetic, and adds a layer of hope to a movement that is sorely in need of it," and that "she touches the heart of grass-roots, kitchen-table conservatives while retaining an air of sophistication."
In the end, Bachmann is a solid, principled conservative who stands up for what she believes. Some people may not like that, people like David Shuster of MSNBC, who never seems to miss a chance to poke a finger in her eye. And, to my mind, the motivation here is political. There are any number of liberal activists and Democratic operatives who believe her congressional district, while heavily Republican, is of a more moderate brand of conservatism than she sometimes espouses; therefore, enough ridicule will lead her constituents to vote her out. It's a strategy that certainly worked in Pennsylvania against Rick Santorum, who essentially hung himself with a series of ill-considered comments in just one interview.
On the other hand, there is no shortage of people holding extreme, even bizarre views in Congress, Democrat and Republican alike. Like the member of Congress, and she knows who she is, who wanted to have hearings into how the CIA was responsible for the epidemic of crack cocaine plaguing the black community.
Now I don't know if that "explains" Michele Bachmann or not. Perhaps I have grown jaded during all my years in Washington and things that ought to faze me no longer do. I do know one thing: Nothing she has said is any crazier than the idea that the federal government can tax, spend and borrow America's way back to economic prosperity. But that's a subject for another day.