Why Michele Bachmann is no Sarah Palin

Newsweek's Washington Bureau Chief warns that Rep. Michele Bachmann should not be underestimated as a presidential contender in the 2012 race.

Jim Cole/AP
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minn. talks to CNN's John King, l during the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate on June 13, 2011.

By Howard Kurtz

Newsweek/Daily Beast

Michele Bachmann all but stole the show at the Republican presidential debate.

The only woman on the New Hampshire stage deftly utilized the CNN spotlight Monday night to announce that she filed her papers to officially run for president, setting off a flood of breaking-news alerts in the event’s opening moments. But she accomplished far more than that.

The Minnesota congresswoman got the first audience roar of the night, promising that Barack Obama would be a one-term president.

She offered a passionate and inclusive defense of the Tea Party, saying that unlike the distorted picture painted by the media, the movement includes “disaffected Democrats,” “independents,” “libertarians” and “people who have never been political a day in their lives.” That, she declares, “is why the left fears it so much.”

She even positioned herself as a truth-teller, saying she “fought against my own party” behind closed doors by opposing the Bush administration’s much-reviled TARP bailout plan.

Not bad for a rookie who kept smiling as she reeled off her best lines.

In fact, Bachmann equivocated only once, when she couldn’t choose between Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Go figure.

Bachmann is relatively new to the national stage, but as anyone who has watched her in action understands, she knows how to play this game.

Many people think of Bachmann and Sarah Palin as cut from the same cloth, but beyond their obvious similarities as outspoken conservative women, they are distinctly different. Bachmann, a decade older at 55, had a career as a tax lawyer and is well versed in the finer points of legislation. She is not only a third-term House member but spent a half-dozen years before that in the Minnesota Senate.

“I will not rest until Obamacare is repealed…It’s a promise, take it to the bank, cash the check.”

And as she reminded the audience at St. Anselm College several times, once in touting her pro-life stance, she has five children and is the “proud foster parent of 23 great children.”

Bachmann is no stranger to Washington television studios; rather than denounce the lamestream media, she engages, and is well practiced in the art of the cable interview, even on such contentious forums as Hardball.

Bachmann also doesn’t have to explain, as Palin does, why she walked away from her biggest job in the middle of her term.

Like Palin, Bachmann generates headlines for saying flamboyant things, such as once suggesting that members of Congress be investigated for anti-American tendencies. But she did none of that Monday night.

Among the seven contenders, the focus was on Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty as the most likely nominees on the stage. Newt Gingrich seemed more of a sideshow because his campaign had just imploded, and Herman Cain seemed less of a novelty than during the first debate, carried on Fox. Bachmann was the fresh face.

She may take garden-variety conservative positions at times, but Bachmann sells them with crowd-pleasing language. She pivoted from a question about job-training programs to vow “the mother of all repeal bills” against liberal overspending, targeting the “job-killing” Environmental Protection Agency in particular.

And there was this: “I will not rest until Obamacare is repealed…It’s a promise, take it to the bank, cash the check.”

The congresswoman also positioned herself as a player, noting she introduced one of the first bills to invalidate Obama’s health-care law. She introduced another measure to kill the “over-the-top” Dodd-Frank banking regulation law. Of course, both laws still stand, but Bachmann, the only one on the stage currently employed, made herself seem like a player, not an observer. In opposing U.S. intervention in Libya—which puts her at odds with the GOP’s McCain wing—Bachmann said she sits on the House intelligence committee and still doesn’t know “who the rebel forces are.”

She was at her most passionate on abortion, defending the “sanctity of human life.” But her toughest moment came when a questioner asked how she would balance her opposition to gay marriage with her advocacy of states’ rights.

Bachmann ducked at first, saying she believes in the 10th Amendment and also believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. When pressed, she said that as president she would not campaign to overturn state laws she didn’t like. But she softened her hard-line image by noting that she was raised by a single mother after her parents’ divorce.

Bachmann’s advantage during the two-hour session is that as an unofficial candidate until now she’s had very little scrutiny. She hasn’t had to explain difficult votes or apparent contradictions between her rhetoric and her record. That will change before long.

The conventional wisdom is that as a social conservative who was born in the state, Bachmann could well win the Iowa caucuses—though she is likely to falter after that. But the enormous media attention she would attract in the process could make her a wild card, and her gender and sharp tongue virtually guarantee she will stand out in a sea of blandness.

We don’t yet know how Michele Bachmann will fare under the grinding pressure of a national campaign. But if her maiden debate was any indication, she shouldn’t be underestimated.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.

Like The Daily Beast on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates all day long.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.