What Michele Bachmann meant to politics

May 29, 2013

Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann's surprise retirement announcement today likely brings an end to an Icarus-like political career in which she rapidly rose to national prominence before falling hard, ups and downs that were fueled by Bachmann's outsized personality and penchant for controversial assertions.

Assessing Bachmann's impact is best done by splitting her eight years in office into two distinct areas: Congress and campaigns.

Her impact on Congress is easier to assess because it is so minor.  From her earliest days in Washington -- she won an open seat House race in 2006 -- Bachmann was viewed by Republican Congressional leaders as a problem to be dealt with as opposed to someone with whom they could work or someone with a significant constituency within the House deserving of special attention.

The best example of the light footprint Bachmann left in Congress? Following the 2010 midterm election, she ran for a spot in the Republican leadership as GOP Conference Chair.  The GOP leadership quickly lined up behind Bachmann's  opponent -- Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling -- and, just days after getting into the contest, Bachmann bowed out.

Bachmann's legacy in terms of campaigns is more lasting -- and, therefore, worth looking at more closely.

"Michele was the first to nationalize her House races via innovative online and social media techniques," said Ed Brookover, a consultant to the Minnesota Republican.

Absolutely true.  Bachmann, particularly when it came to fundraising, harnessed the power of the Internet to mobilize conservative activists around the country to support her bids for re-election in a suburban Twin Cities seat.

Bachmann collected $15 million for her 2012 re-election race, which she won by less than 5,000 votes. Two years earlier Bachmann raised more than $13 million. Both numbers were, by far, the most money brought in by a House candidate or incumbent in both election cycles.

She had a sort of innate understanding, too, of the sorts of issues that would drive conservatives to action -- whether by donating to her, volunteering for her campaigns or simply "liking" her in a variety of social media. Bachmann quickly grasped that the fight against President Obama's health-care law was a galvanizing force among conservatives. During her bid for the 2012 presidential nomination, she drew huge applause wherever she went for her pledge to repeal the law on her first day in office. (Bachmann's adamant opposition to the health-care law spawned a number of imitators on the issue within the GOP field.)

And yet, for all of Bachmann's savvy about how to channel the Republican base, her ultimate legacy as a candidate -- for the House and, especially, for president -- is that she seemed to possess more promise than she ever delivered on.

"Bachmann had great potential but didn't have the discipline, detachment or ear for prime time," said Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican lobbyist and strategist. "Too bad for the GOP. We need a big-time charismatic woman leader."

Bachmann's political career peaked in August 2011 when she won the Ames (Iowa) Straw Poll, a test -- or, more accurately, a perceived test -- of organizational ability in advance of the state's 2012 presidential caucuses. That victory culminated a miraculous two-month run for Bachmann, a streak that began with her stronger-than-expected performance in the first Republican presidential debate in early June.

On the day Bachmann won the straw vote, Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally entered the presidential race. Perry's candidacy eventually imploded but not before he destroyed Bachmann's own candidacy.

Bachmann did plenty of damage to herself, too. Her willingness to speak off the cuff led to a series of minor mistakes (John Wayne Gacy not John Wayne) and major factual misstatements (the link between vaccination and mental retardation).  (You can revisit some of Bachmann's biggest whoppers here.)

Bachmann's gaffes came to define her in the presidential race, and even Republicans who had been favorably inclined to her began jumping ship. In the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann finished sixth, winning just 6,046 votes -- only 1,223 more votes than she got in the straw poll. Seventeen thousand people voted in the straw poll, while 120,000 voted in the caucuses.

Bachmann left the race shortly afterward and, damaged somewhat by her pledges about being a native Iowan, eked out a victory in a 6th District that Mitt Romney won by 15 points.  In the wake of her 2012 reelection win, Bachmann has been dogged by allegations of financial impropriety in her presidential bid.

The rapid ascent and similarly quick descent from the national stage for Bachmann follows a now well-worn path for those seeking to become the face of the tea party movement.  Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has virtually disappeared from the political stage. Allen West (Fla.) and Joe Walsh (Ill.) both lost bids for reelection last fall. Iowa Rep. Steve King was widely regarded by establishment Republicans as unelectable if he had decided to run for the state's open Senate seat. (He didn't.)

In the end, Bachmann's story is a cautionary one.  She is someone who never grew beyond her natural abilities to speak for the conservative base, instead veering into territory in which she became -- even within her own party --  a fringe figure rather than a serious player.

Bachmann's legacy then is that of someone who flew too high, too fast and wound up crashing back to the political ground. It's not a new story, but it's one that she epitomizes.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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