Rep. Michele Bachmann is no stranger to controversy or — as we found during the GOP presidential primary — stretching the truth.
Today, though, for arguably the first time in her congressional career, the Minnesota GOP congresswoman is finding herself publicly on the outs with some in her own party. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), among others, have publicly criticized Bachmann for her suggestion that State Department officials, including longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, might be part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government. (Though notably, Newt Gingrich defended her this morning.)
So what gives? Why did Bachmann, whose history of bending the truth and saying controversial things has already been well-documented, finally go too far for her colleagues?
There are a few reasons that we can surmise:
1. She’s got a profile now
Bachmann is now in the illustrious company of the winners of the Iowa Straw Poll (a group that includes Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush). Her presidential campaign fizzled shortly thereafter, but the fact is that a politician who largely flew under the mainstream’s radar now has a little more heft.
With that heft comes more attention, and suddenly the things she says are not just the musings of some back-bench member of Congress but a Republican who actually got some real traction with the GOP base against the likes of Romney. That makes the things she says potentially more harmful to her party.
Which leads us to ...
2. The GOP’s reaction
Bachmann’s letter, which was co-signed by four other House members, wasn’t big news until McCain took to the Senate floor and eviscerated her.
“These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit. And they need to stop now,” McCain said, according to prepared remarks.
Suddenly, members of her own party were no longer standing idly by and (to borrow a phrase from the Boston Red Sox/Manny Ramirez) let Bachmann be Bachmann. McCain, one of the biggest voices in the GOP today and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, took time to publicly and starkly criticize one of his fellow Republicans. Soon, Boehner and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which Bachmann serves on, joined McCain in denouncing Bachmann.
Democrats can attack Bachmann all day; the moment that Republicans with such stature enter the fray against their GOP colleague, it becomes big news.
3. The target
Put simply, Bachmann picked the wrong person to mess with, and her allegations probably wouldn’t have made big news if she didn’t name Abedin.
Abedin is very close to the Clintons and has a great reputation in Washington, even among Republicans and the media. Also, perhaps just as importantly, she was turned into a sympathetic character when her husband, then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), was caught sending lewd messages to women on Twitter last year.
All of that means Abedin has lots of friends, McCain being one of them, who aren’t going to stand idly by when someone levies charges against her. Unlike her previous brushes with controversy, Bachmann is suddenly outmanned.
4. The severity of the charge
All of the above aside, what Bachmann is alleging is on a whole new level from her previous allegations. While she alleged in 2007 that Iran had plans to turn parts of Iraq into a terrorist haven, accusing U.S. government officials of being involved in a terrorist conspiracy is different.
The former charge may not pass the smell test or be based on any public evidence, but it’s not too far afield that many would disbelieve it. After all, Iran is the bad guy.
The latter would be a scandal the likes of which this country has rarely — if ever — seen. And Bachmann is making the allegation against American citizens.
It remains to be seen whether Bachmann has done enough to cause herself any problems in the November election. What she has done is torpedoed any political capital she might have had left over from her brief moment in the spotlight during the GOP presidential nominating contest last year.