For Part 1 of this interview, click here.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), as I noted yesterday, was a surprise. The gap between public and private persona is usually less stark among Washington politicians. And if there is a gap, the private person is almost always less impressive than the sound-bite trained, perfectly coiffed TV or campaign-stop pol. With Bachmann, her media profile is so at odds with her actual presence that one comes away a bit disoriented. More than any other figure — I’d argue even more than Sarah Palin — the mainstream media has missed, or chosen to ignore, the real Michele Bachmann.
Cynics would call Bachmann’s media image an “act,” the serving up of red meat for the base and an effective means of raising her profile. But it is also evidence of an understanding of 24/7 media and of the demands of being a revered figure for the most influential grassroots movement in recent memory, the Tea Party. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulls out all the stops we call it “showmanship,” so perhaps the same talent for the dramatic should be credited to Bachmann. One thing is certain: While she relishes a quip and a verbal duel, she is also a very disciplined and organized woman (tax attorneys are generally not flaky characters) who certainly can learn, if so inclined, to tighten her message. She already has the intellectual heft to formulate and defend her positions.
She has a take on the Tea Party that effectively debunks the idea that the movement is extreme. She says, “The Tea party is an organic, spontaneous movement that rose up in opposition to to the Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda.” She explains with a lawyerly precision that the reason the “hard left” has become unglued is that the Tea Party “is leaderless, unorganized and represents the spirit of America.” In sum, these are people who “love this country,” she says, but see much of what they believe in under attack. She notes with understated humor that the media portrays Tea Partyers as “toothless hillbillies who come down [to D.C.] in carloads.” Nothing, she argues, could be further from the truth. She explains that Tea Partyers come from “all strata,” from the very wealthy to those of modest means. She notes that Tea Party groups are “often led by women”and have plenty of non-Republicans in their ranks. They are bound together, she says, by a simple message. They are “people who reject the Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda. If you reject the Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda, then you’re a Tea Partyer,” she tells me.
She finds it absurd that the Tea Party could be labeled “radical.” She lists the core Tea Party beliefs — reducing spending, preventing tax increases and maintaining government within constitutional limits. “This is no radical agenda,” she says.
She gently chides the Democrats, pointing to revelations this week that the Democrats are egging on a government shutdown, intending to blame the “radical” Tea Party. But now, she contends, “the world knows the truth — it’s Shakespearean,” she says, observing that the Democrats are in essence staging a play for the public.
She contends that “people have had enough” of excessive government. “The rubber band has been stretched too thin,” she notes. And, given the ground that Democrats have conceded this week, it’s hard to quibble with her conclusion that it is Tea Party-backed fiscal conservatives who have the upper hand.
She plainly relishes her role as one of the movement’s most prominent figures. She recalls that her last congressional campaign attracted Democrats and independents who understood she “has an authentic voice” and came to Washington to fight for her agenda.
But when I ask her about raising 28 children, five of her own and 23 foster children, it is apparent that she has a broader perspective on life than that of many D.C. pols. She calls the parenting of her 28 children “the greatest intellectual challenge of my life.” She warns against underestimating “the worth of a mother.” This experience was clearly not for the fainthearted. She describes it as intellectually, emotionally and physically demanding on her and her husband. She explains,“We had a balancing act.” With young children and much older foster kids whom they had to prepare for adulthood, that seems to be a vast understatement. She says, “We had to keep our eye on the prize. We worked and worked and worked.” That “prize” was the upbringing of those children. She says of her parenting that at the end of her life, “it will probably be my finest hour.” Parenting, she says, “is the only thing we do” that endures.
That’s a remarkable sentiment for a politician who is determined to change government, the Republican Party and the conservative movement. It’s not the sort of thoughtful observation that fits the mainstream media narrative. But then, nearly all of what you observe in person doesn’t match that image.
Bachmann’s greatest challenge, should she run for president in 2012, will be to convince a wide cross-section of voters that she isn’t the media’s cartoon figure. But she’ll have to do it without dampening the enthusiasm of her most devoted supporters. However, candidly, the biggest challenge will be for the other candidates, who will have to debate a very smart, articulate and entirely underestimated woman. As one Republican operative told me, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to get on that stage with her.” And that is precisely why a Bachmann candidacy, far from being a “joke” or a “farce,” might be the most interesting thing to happen to the 2012 GOP primary race.