Rep. Michele Bachmann’s ideological purity is a weakness in Congress but a major strength in the presidential race. (Photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune)

The voting record that any House member or Senator compiles is almost always an anchor around the neck of his (or her) candidacy. The nature of Congress is compromise, and explaining those compromises to primary voters yearning for purity is an extremely difficult task.

Enter Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann who, in the space of two months or so, has catapulted herself into the top tier of 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

Bachmann’s five years in Congress are widely described — even by her Republican colleagues — as almost entirely quixotic, tilting at lost causes (or never-were causes) and usually winding up on the wrong side of her party’s leadership.

And that may be a very good thing for her chances at winning the party’s presidential nomination in 2012.

The difference between being an effective member of Congress and being a good presidential candidate is like the difference between being a star in college basketball and shining in the NBA.

In college hoops, someone like J.J. Redick (of Duke fame/infamy) is a dominant force. (The Fix once witnessed Redick score more than 40 points against our beloved Georgetown Hoyas.) In the pros, Redick is a role player — limited by the increased size and athleticism that the NBA demands.

So, too, in presidential politics. Some of the greatest legislative leader in modern memory --- Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt to name a few — were mediocre (at best) presidential candidates.

On the other hand, a number of politicians with decidedly thin resumes in Congress — John Edwards, Barack Obama — have excelled on the presidential stage.

Why? The game is simply different.

Let’s look at Bachmann’s four-plus years representing Minnesota’s 6th district through each of the lenses.

There’s little debate that Bachmann has done very little substantively in terms of passing legislation during her time in Congress.

“I can’t think of one bill that she has crafted and passed,” an anonymous senior Republican aide tells National Review’s Robert Costa in a forthcoming cover story on Bachmann.

As detailed by the Post’s Paul Kane and Phil Rucker a few months back, Bachmann’s top local legislative priority — a bridge in her hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota — died in subcommittee without attracting a single co-sponsor.

When she ran for a party leadership post in the wake of the 2010 election, it quickly became apparent she would not be a serious contender for the slot and she dropped her candidacy.

Politico’s John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman summed up Bachmann’s congressional career this way in a recent piece: “Bachmann has never had a bill or resolution she’s sponsored signed into law, and she’s never wielded a committee gavel, either at the full or subcommittee level.”

Many people inside the Beltway look at what Bachmann has done (or, more accurately, hasn’t done) and assume that it ensures that she will eventually falter in the Republican presidential race.

Not necessarily.

Take Bachmann’s first ad of her 2012 campaign, a commercial that began airing Thursday morning in Iowa.

“I fought against the wasteful bailout, against the stimulus,” Bachmann says in the ad. “I will not vote to increase the debt ceiling.”

Bachmann’s purity makes her largely irrelevant in Congress. She’s not part of the debt ceiling negotiations or someone the leadership consults with on much of anything.

That same purity — coupled with Republican voters’ widespread disdain for “the way Washington works” — is a major strength for Bachmann in the presidential race.

Rating Bachmann’s chances on the numbers of bills she’s sponsored or passed into law is a mistaken measure. Her strength in a Republican primary is based in her willingness to charge at windmills. And, she has done plenty of that during her congressional tenure.


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