Bachmann excels at attracting controversy but wields little influence on Hill

May 1, 2011

The narrow bridge connecting this quaint river town with neighboring Wisconsin is decaying, one chunk of rusted steel at a time. For decades, Minnesota’s politicians have tried and failed to win permission to erect a new bridge across the scenic St. Croix River.

It now falls to Rep. Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman who calls Stillwater home, to finally get it done. The bridge will test whether one of the most recognizable elected officials in Washington can fulfill the most basic duty of members of Congress: delivering for the voters in their district.

The Minnesota Republican has excelled as a provocateur. Her frequent appearances on cable television, in which she harshly criticizes Democrats in general and President Obama in particular, have made her a household name. She is a sought-after speaker on the conservative lecture circuit and raises thousands of dollars with a simple tweet.

Bachmann has larger ambitions. The tea party heroine is preparing a long-shot bid for president in 2012 and is getting plenty of attention as she criss-crosses the early primary states. At campaign stops in New Hampshire this weekend, Bachmann called the new health-care law Obama’s “Frankenstein,” saying the overhaul was a practice in “fantasy economics,” and likened the nation’s growing debt crisis to the Holocaust.

Despite her fame and her skill at attracting controversial headlines, Bachmann has yet to leave her mark as a policymaker or legislator. On Capitol Hill, she holds little sway with her colleagues and has guided no substantial legislation into law.

A bill Bachmann introduced last year to clear the way for the new Stillwater bridge — her top local priority — attracted no co-sponsors and died in a subcommittee. One of her biggest legislative accomplishments to date was approval of a 2009 resolution supporting National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month, to bring attention to the brain disorder.

Bachmann says there is a reason for this: She is unwilling to adopt many of the skills traditionally associated with success in Congress — inside maneuvering, charming committee leaders and trading favors with colleagues.

Instead, she says, she measures her success as a congresswoman not only by what she is able to make happen, but by what she is able to keep from happening. Bachmann fashions herself as a savior of her vision of America, by putting herself between anyone or any idea that she thinks goes against the will of the people and by conforming to no party’s rules.

A fearless practitioner of pitchfork populism, Bachmann has been known to jab her prongs into establishment Republicans as well as Democrats.

She founded the House Tea Party Caucus last year, installing herself as leader. She saw herself as something of a den mother for the 87 Republican freshmen in the House, but only a dozen have joined her group.

When Republicans took control of the House in January, she tried to parlay her populist appeal into a party leadership spot. Her colleagues turned her down.

Bachmann thinks that was a mistake. Curled up in a leather chair during an interview in her Capitol Hill office, she said that she uniquely channels the tea party’s “new energy.”

Placing two fingers to her wrist as if to check her pulse, Bachmann said: “I think that I just had a real sense of the pulse of the people.”

A polarizing figure

Here in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, many of those people have strong opinions about Bachmann: They either revere her or revile her. In these conservative suburbs of the Twin Cities, enough voters fall in the former category for her to easily win election to a third term.

Even in her home town, Bachmann is a polarizing figure. Dorothy Leonard, 70, reflected on Bachmann’s speech in January, in which she misconstrued facts about the history of slavery.

“I was humiliated by her,” said Leonard, while organizing kitchen utensils on the shelves of a shop in Stillwater. “I know her staff can’t control her mouth, but she needs to learn the facts before she opens it again.”

Democrats have accused Bachmann of not being accessible enough.

Paul Ryberg, a Democrat from Lake Elmo, organizes “Yellow Ribbon” events honoring veterans in the district that regularly draw politicians. He said he could not recall Bachmann showing up at any of the past half-dozen events.

“I’m coming up blank,” Ryberg said. “She’s not to be found. I’m afraid that summarizes Michele Bachmann and Minnesota.”

Bachmann and her supporters flatly reject this charge.

“She bends over backwards to try to be accessible,” said James Rugg, co-chairman of the Central Minnesota Tea Party. “I think she’s accessible to anybody, whether they’re leaders in the tea party movement or not.”

Since winning reelection, Bachmann’s political travels have taken her across the country, from Hawaii to Montana, South Carolina and Iowa, where she raised money and test-drove campaign themes.

“She is the Energizer bunny,” said a supporter, Rhonda Sivarajah, the Republican chairwoman of the Anoka County Board of Commissioners. “She just is go-go-go.”

As she tours the early primary states, Bachmann’s flair as a fiery communicator — she’s unafraid, uncompromising and, yes, sometimes shaky on the facts — has brought out adoring crowds.

Some of Bachmann’s closest friends in Congress have warned her against a presidential bid lest she tarnish the outsider brand she has so deftly created.

“You can choose to be an outsider or you can choose to be an insider, but you can’t choose to be both,” Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “I believe Michele Bachmann’s strength is as an outsider.”

Little influence on Hill

Nobody mistakes Bachmann for an insider. And that is why it has been so tough for her to get that Stillwater bridge built.

The project has been in the works for more than three decades: a four-lane bridge to replace the 1931 lift bridge that connects the Twin Cities’s eastern suburbs with rural Wisconsin.

The proposal has ping-ponged for years amid concerns that it would harm the protected river. The National Park Service first approved the bridge’s construction in the 1990s, then denied it, then approved it again. And then, in October, the agency ruled that the bridge would violate the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Bachmann attributes the decision to distortion and bureaucratic overreach.

“The radical environment groups — again — are coming in and stomping their feet and throwing up a red flag, and it’s all over the issue of ‘visual pollution,’ ” she said.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), whose district borders Bachmann’s, opposes the $700 million proposal, in part because she doesn’t think the government can afford it. But, like Bachmann, most local officials want the bridge built — and they are relying on the Republican congresswoman.

Earlier this year, Bachmann introduced legislation to overrule the Park Service. A similar bill she introduced last year went nowhere. This time, with Republicans in control of the House, Bachmann thinks things might be different. She has three co-sponsors, all relatively junior lawmakers from Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the bill will get a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, where Bachmann is scheduled to testify.

Advancing the bill may require Bachmann to adopt strategies she has never employed. In her House career, Bachmann has introduced more than 45 pieces of legislation. Many have been small in scope and of great interest to conservative ideologues, such as the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, which would stop the Obama administration’s regulation phasing out low-efficiency bulbs.

All have met with little to no success, except for a handful of symbolic resolutions, such as one commemorating Minnesota’s 150th anniversary of statehood and the one supporting the cause of hydrocephalus awareness.

Cultivation of celebrity

However one measures the effectiveness of Bachmann’s work, there is no questioning her work ethic. She is a constant whirl of motion, stabbing furiously at her iPhone and iPad with one finger. She does not sit behind a desk. “If I’m standing up, I work faster,” she said.

But much of Bachmann’s workday is geared toward boosting her personal brand. Television and radio appearances are a regular part of her workweek. She appeared on cable shows at least 45 times last year, according to the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, almost all of them on Fox News Channel.

Bachmann has leveraged her celebrity into a fundraising machine that any politician would envy. In 2010, she raised $13.5 million — more than any other House candidate, including Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Bachmann may have little chance of winning the White House, but she will have little difficulty making her voice heard. What she lacks in legislative influence, she makes up for in media savvy. She exerts power by mobilizing her nationwide fan base to flood her colleagues’ offices with calls telling them to do what she says.

On “Meet the Press” in March, Bachmann brandished a chart asserting that Obama’s health-care law contained a secret $105 billion fund.

Fact-checkers skewered her: the fund was in the bill, but government accountants said she greatly overstated the amount. Still, conservative activists leapt onto the idea. Tea party groups agitated for members of Congress to join Bachmann’s effort to repeal the fund.

That’s just the kind of political ambush that might make Bachmann’s colleagues less than enthusiastic to oblige when she comes around looking for votes to, say, build a bridge in Minnesota.

In March, several freshmen spoke out at a closed-door party meeting. Although none singled out Bachmann by name, the freshmen accused some colleagues of provocative media appearances that distracted from the party’s overall goals, according to Republican aides who were present.

Bachmann did not hear the criticism. She had left the meeting early to scurry back to her office. She was scheduled to be the call-in guest on Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated conservative radio show.

Rucker reported from Minnesota and Kane from Washington.

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