Crazy Isn't as Crazy Was: How the GOP Ran Out of Use for Michele Bachmann

Elspeth Reeve
Crazy Isn't as Crazy Was: How the GOP Ran Out of Use for Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann's career took off in November 2008, when she told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that reporters needed to "do a penetrating exposé" on members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." Given then-Sen. Barack Obama's sketchy past, she said, "What it is that Barack Obama really believes?" Democrats gave her opponent $8 million in 10 days, but she won anyway. This was Bachmann's role — to recite the vague conspiracy theories you read in forwarded emails on cable news — from then till Wednesday, when she announced she's quitting Congress. For a while, the Republican Party found her quite useful. Until it didn't any more. And now Michele Bachmann is going home.

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Crazy worked really well for Bachmann for a while. She raised a ton of money, the vast majority of it from small donors. Her most important message was to justify all-out opposition to Obama — otherwise, America would crumble. "If you look at FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama, this is really the final leap to socialism," she said in 2009. "But we all know that we could turn this around and we can turn this around fairly quickly." She rallied against Obama's "gangster government" in April 2010, saying, "It's time for these little piggies to go home." Bachmann rejected claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by racism"Racism is real. Racism is ugly. You hate racism, I hate racism," she told Sean Hannity in July 2010. Obama's spending showed his "infantilism," she said in September 2010, but on Election Day, "Liberty will be refreshed in our country."

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Establishment Republicans didn't just like this message, they made it a strategy. Instead of negotiating over health care reform in 2009, they fought to stop it from passing. They failed. They tried to repeal it. They failed. They tried to get it overturned by the Supreme Court. They failed there, too. Stop Obama at all costs — that was the message of Republican leaders: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in October 2010. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called Obamacare "untenable and unconstitutional." And Bachmann pushed that message with conservative covers beautifully. Obamacare was "the crown jewel of socialism," she said in January 2011, foreshadowing the House's 37 votes to repeal it. Back the Tea Party, and by extension, the Republican Party, or watch the country be destroyed from the inside out: "We are at a time in our country when we are full-on embracing socialism," she said 11 months later in her presidential campaign.

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That message helped sweep Republicans into a majority in the House in 2010. John Boehner rewarded her with an appointment to the prestigious House Intelligence Committee in 2011. But between then and January 2013, when it looked like she could lose that position, something happened: the 2012 election. In the Republican primary, Bachmann got a little too crazy. She floated conspiracy theories about vaccines causing mental retardation. There were questions of whether she revealed classified information in debates. She, like most of the other Republican candidates, was anti-immigration. Losing the Latino vote by 40 points helped cost Mitt Romney the White House that fall.

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Bachmann had been very good at adapting to the shifting whims of conservative voters. Bachmann fashioned herself as a spokesman for the Tea Party, even though she was elected in 2006, before the Tea Party existed. Back then, she was a regular evangelical, concerned with social issues, not taxes. In 2011, she blended them together, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network she was a "Teavangelical." "We should follow the Constitution, and I'm a believer in Jesus Christ, so I think that makes me a Teavangelical," Bachmann said. But those positions made it impossible to adapt to the shifting whims of the establishment GOP, which has decided, since the 2012 election, to refashion itself as friendlier to Latinos, open to gays, and offering solutions for the middle class. The fear of Bachmann has become so great that Republicans want to kill the Iowa Straw Poll, the contest that made Bachmann a serious presidential candidate when she won it in August 2011. The Republican National Committee wants a shorter primary with fewer debates -- the better to keep the Bachmanns at bay. Bachmann's star dimmed. Her Tea Party Caucus was inactive this year. And now she's leaving public office. Meanwhile, establishment guys like Mitch McConnell, who benefitted from her crazy, are being celebrated for drinking alone.