“What are you giving personally of yourself?”
Rep. Michele Bachmann issued this challenge Friday, to a roomful of conservative activists, sounding a JFK-style call to service. She had just implored them to join her on the front lines of a fight to defend liberty and oppose President Obama’s vision for a progressive America. There’s just one problem: Bachmann herself seems to have gone AWOL from this conflict.
In the first two months of the 113th Congress, the Minnesota Republican, whose first three terms in the House were marked by rhetorical warfare and reliably high-profile opposition to the Democratic agenda, has been practically invisible. Her daily appearances on Fox News have dwindled. Her Politifact profile has gone dormant. Her press releases are few and far between. The firebrand who founded the House Tea Party Caucus is no longer leading rallies near the Capitol. The lawmaker who promised to lead the charge against “Obamacare” is absent from recent efforts to defund it. And the woman who liberals wanted to sit down and shut up? Well, now she has.
What happened to Michele Bachmann?
“She has taken a lower profile; there isn’t any doubt about that,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of Bachmann’s closest friends in the House and another archconservative whom Democrats have tried repeatedly to knock off.
“She had to run a tough reelection campaign. They threw all kinds of things at her in Minnesota. So I’m going to guess that she’s in the process, like a lot of us, of rebuilding her political war chest.”
Indeed, 18 months ago, Bachmann was on top of the conservative world, emerging unexpectedly as a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president with a win in the Iowa straw poll. But that August victory was the beginning of the end of her presidential run. She quit the race in early January, after an embarrassing sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, and returned home to a newly drawn district and a bitter fight just to hold onto her House seat. She won by fewer than 5,000 votes and returned to Congress—this time more quietly.
If there’s one area where Bachmann has maintained a presence, it’s in fundraising. She continues to send regular e-mails to her donor list—often with excited subject lines—telling of Democratic plans to defeat her and begging for campaign contributions to help replenish her “badly depleted war chest.”
Still, Bachmann’s pleas for campaign funds have always been accompanied and bolstered by high-profile appearances on conservative media outlets and headline-grabbing remarks at tea-party rallies. Now the fundraising pitch is delivered alone, reaching a national audience that has not seen or heard from Bachmann with any regularity in recent months. (Her office declined to comment for this story).
“I have no idea what she’s doing,” said Keli Carender, national grassroots coordinator for the group Tea Party Patriots. Carender said conservative activists are increasingly “curious” about Bachmann’s absence from the limelight but noted that most of them still support her and consider her a kindred spirit. “She’s quieter now, but at the same time, she still votes consistently for our values,” Carender said. “And when she does speak, she still speaks for our values.”
Some former Bachmann staffers attribute her sudden silence to the persistent sting of her unceremonious exit from the White House race. Others say Bachmann holds a grudge against what her camp perceived to be a biased media—even among right-leaning outlets—and is simply being more selective with her press exposure. There are also those who say Bachmann saw her close call last year as a warning, and knows she needs to stop lobbing rhetorical bombs if she’s to hold onto her newly competitive seat. A few friends of Bachmann’s even speculated, quietly, that she could be bracing herself for a Senate bid next year.
Whatever the explanation, the cause is less important than the effect. Whether Bachmann is recalibrating her rhetorical approach or just resting her lungs in preparation for the next big ideological battle is an open question. If her address to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday was any indication—she served generous amounts of red meat to the conservative crowd, riffing on everything from Benghazi and guns to the Obama family dog—it’s more than likely the latter.
Those who know Bachmann best don’t expect this lower profile to last.
“I would not expect Michele Bachmann to lay low and be quiet for long,” King said. “We’ll hear a lot more from her.”