In her surprise video announcement Wednesday telling the world she’s not running for reelection, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota suggested that serving in Congress is like being president: Eight years in office are enough.
Actual American presidents would probably take issue with that analogy. Though for Congresswoman Bachmann, whose tenure has been marked by staff upheaval, her own run for the presidency, federal investigations into her campaign finances, and tea party leadership, she may be just as exhausted as a two-term president.
But Bachmann didn’t say that. In fact, in her video, she seemed energetic and defiant as she insisted that the investigations and the strong Democratic challenger she faced for her seat had no bearing on her decision. She promised to “work overtime for the next 18 months in Congress defending ... constitutional conservative values.”
Beyond that, Bachmann didn’t offer any clues about her future. Her fans are also wondering – and clearly have big expectations.
“Where will Michele Bachmann go from here?” writes Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation social media site. “She hasn’t said but one thing is certain. We will still hear from her and she will still have a huge impact, long after her term ends in 2015.”
Perhaps she imagines a slot at a major conservative organization, just as Republican Jim DeMint – another tea party leader – recently left his Senate seat in South Carolina for the presidency of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Chances are, Bachmann won’t turn out to be Jim DeMint in a skirt. Running an organization doesn’t appear to be her strong suit.
But like many retired, high-profile politicians before her, she has many options.
"Whatever she does next – speaking, broadcasting, writing, or practicing election law – Michele Bachmann will let the world know on her terms, and at a time of her choosing. That’s been her modus operandi,” says John Gizzi, White House correspondent and chief political columnist for the conservative Newsmax. “Like her former ally, Sarah Palin, she won't go quietly into the night. To paraphrase the cigarette commercial, Mrs. Bachmann will walk a mile for a camera – and the camera will always follow her."
Embedded in that thought is the opportunity to make money, lots of money. Like Ms. Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee, whom Bachmann is often compared to, she can work the lecture circuit, write books, maybe launch a talk-radio or TV show. At an earlier time, she might have been a shoo-in for a paid gig on Fox News, but the network has been repositioning itself away from the far right, and it may not want the "what will she say now" risk that Bachmann would bring.
Some suggest she may fade in prominence, the way former tea party Rep. Allen West (R) of Florida did after he lost his reelection bid last November. But Mr. West served only one term, and he never ran for president. Bachmann’s presidential campaign didn’t go far – but she did knock off a heavy hitter, fellow Minnesotan and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in the Iowa straw poll in the summer of 2011.
Bachmann’s habit of making false or off-the-wall statements may limit her options outside tea party circles. Recall, for example, her assertion during her presidential campaign that the vaccination against the human papillomavirus can cause mental retardation. But she still boasts an impressive résumé: She has law degrees from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., and William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va.; ran a business with her husband; and served in both the Minnesota Legislature and US House of Representatives, including service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
And as she often noted during her campaign, she raised five children and took in 23 foster children.
Some Republicans suggest her future will include continuing legal battles. Both the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Office of Congressional Ethics are investigating the finances of her former presidential campaign. Now that she’s not running for reelection, the ethics committee may lose interest, but the FEC challenge could last awhile. A former aide is accusing her of making improper payments to an Iowa state senator who was her state campaign chairman, among other charges.
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a standard “thank you for your service” in response to Bachmann’s announcement, noting that she was the first Republican woman elected to represent Minnesota in the US House.
“As a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Financial Services Committee, Michele has devoted herself to keeping our country safe and has fought for fiscal responsibility in Washington,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, the committee chairman, in a statement.
What Congressman Walden didn’t (and wouldn’t) say is that Bachmann’s decision helps the GOP, which still has time to find a strong replacement to run in a solidly Republican district. Less clear is where the tea party is heading. The movement seemed somewhat adrift until news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had been targeting tea party groups for extra scrutiny in their applications for nonprofit tax status. That development has helped energize tea party groups.
Bachmann remains the chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, which held its first meeting of the year in April. Now that she’s a lame duck, there’s speculation she may step down from that role as well, allowing new leadership to take over.