When I interviewed Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) the day after the CNN-Heritage-American Enterprise Institute debate, she stressed, quite effectively, her own foreign policy knowledge, in essence making the case that her male counterparts are still using training wheels while she would come to the job ready to sail the ship on very stormy waters.
As for the debate, she was bubbly. “I loved it. The subject matter I really do adore,” she told me. She acknowledged that the race “up to this point [had] focused on jobs and the economy.” Bachmann's camp had a row with CBS, which sponsored the last foreign policy debate, over the plan (revealed in an e-mail) to give her few questions. But of CNN, she had no complaints. “I thought CNN handled it fairly. We covered some great topics.”
Her enthusiasm was no doubt a function of her strong performance, one generally regarded as her best in a long time. In her last round Bachmann brought up our Iraq pullout, a topic that had been ignored up until then. She said with some exasperation, “We’ll have more troops in Honduras” than Iraq after the drawdown. (And in fact, we’ve seen the administration scrambling to show we have an ongoing commitment to the region.)
Her debate answer on the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was so good pundits accused her of either making facts up or leaking confidential information. She laughed when I asked her about it. “I read a lot,” she deadpanned. “It was all from open source documents. I read the November issue of Atlantic magazine. It was very thorough.” She noted that she took a couple of lines from the piece — “too nuclear to fail” and “we have to have a better policy than keeping our fingers crossed.” She was clearly amused that so many liberal pundits obviously hadn’t read the piece and/or assume she wouldn’t be reading a generally left-of-center publication on a complicated national security issue. (She noted that time in the debate is scare so there isn’t always time to give attribution on every point.) It was a telling incident, reflective of the habits of the media, both mainstream and conservative, of underestimating her smarts and knowledge.
It’s also revealing of her disinclination to play the victim or complain about her coverage. Her low opinion of the mainstream media was apparent, but she wasn’t about to whine. Show them up, yes. But whine? No. That’s not her style.
She wasn’t shy about making the argument that we are now beginning to “see holes” in the background of many of the other candidates. “I’m the only one currently immersed” in national security issues, she argued. Her time on the House Select Committee on Intelligence has plainly been an asset. She speaks fluently on national security issues. She said simply, “One thing we know is the world is a far more dangerous place now” than when Obama took office. She reeled off a list of challenges: the latest findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency showing Iran’s progress on a nuclear weapon; 3,000 miles of underground tunnels for missiles in China ( She cracks, “That was in the Wall Street Journal”); news that a Russian scientist enabled Iran to make progress in leaps and bounds on its nuclear program ( she quotes favorably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who famously said that while President George W. Bush looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes he saw his soul; McCain saw three letters: “K-G-B.”); North Korea’s role in nuclear proliferation ( a nuclear “Wal-Mart” for other rogue states, she calls it): and rising violence in Pakistan. She concluded: “The next president will be tested.” She said of her opponents, “What will be their gut instincts? Will they be Ron Paul isolationists?”
She shifted to a point of disagreement with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in the debate: aid to Pakistan. She contends that it is vital “to be engaged in Pakistan. Do we really want China or North Korea or Iran to be the major power there?”
She is adamant that the United States can’t allow Iran to get the bomb. She noted that the mullahs have already promised to wipe out Israel. But unlike some of her competitors, her analysis doesn’t stop there. She said, “Iran will share [its nuclear technology] with Syria, another state sponsor of terrorism.” She continued “It is not out of the realm of possibility for jihadists to get fissile material” and take that into the United States to conduct nuclear terrorism. She told me: “You cannot take a chance on the commander in chief.”
As for defense spending, she vows to go after cost-plus contracts. “It is outrageous,” she said. She wants to, as many others in Congress have tried to do, get the Defense Department on fixed-price contracts. However, she follows this up with an unequivocal statement that the U.S. cannot afford to decimate its military. “It doesn’t mean we cut 200,000 troops. It doesn’t mean we go to 1915 levels in the Navy.or a 1940 Army.” She observed that such reductions “send just as much a signal” to hostile states as would a premature drawdown in Afghanistan.
She then turned to the debt. The federal government, she cracked, is “no lean, mean, fighting machine.When I came the debt was $8.67 trillion. Now it’s $15 trillion.” She explained how she would have handled the debt ceiling debate. “Draw a line in the sand. Pay interest on the debt,” she began. And then with the threat of the debt ceiling and the rest of the government funding in the balance, she argued, the entire Congress (not a supercommittee) should have spent the summer reforming entitlement programs. She noted that we need to raise the retirement age and that for Medicare “we know it can run better.” (She previously praised Rep. Paul Ryan’s premium support proposal.)
As for Obamacare, she argued for an immediate moratorium on implementation, until it can be repealed. She called it “the largest new entitlement we’ve ever had.”
Bachmann, in forceful but measured tones, can effectively make her case, as she did in the last debate, that a number of her conservative opponents, especially on foreign policy, simply aren’t up to the job. And (perhaps in a swipe at Obama or at the notoriously disorganized Gingrich) she added, “I’m a decisive person. I want all the facts. But once I do, I can make a decision.”
Bachmann is now fighting to turn the Iowa electorate’s sights back to her after once leading in the polls. If nothing else, she is reminding Iowa voters that barbed one-liners don’t mean much when the country is facing an array of critical domestic and foreign policy challenges. Iowa caucus voters are traditionally late deciders. As they are getting down to their final selections, Bachmann has to hope that they see her opponents stalling while she is firing on all cylinders.