I had planned to spend the remaining portion of 2011 ignoring her, but somewhere between Michele Bachmann's announcing her candidacy for President - hardly a surprise - and the last couple of weeks, what was merely a GOP sideshow morphed into some serious concern. And I have to admit... some of this is probably not good to ignore.
I've long argued, and still believe, that Bachmann is, for now, useful to a GOP establishment that wants, more than anything, to sideline Sarah Palin; there's only so much room in the public consciousness for similar types, and Palin and Bachmann play to the same conservative base with much the same appeal - attractive, plain spoken brunettes who try to sell conservatism as just a happy dose of down home common sense, good raisin' your mama should have gave ya. That there's not exactly a coherent political platform in a dose of mama's common sense is pretty much beside the point.
I still think Bachmann's serious chances of being the nominee are slight... but the wild card here is that the GOP Establishment's ability to steer the operation is growing more and more in doubt. The failure to convincingly sell a consensus choice is becoming worrying, and the various options offered - the MItt Romneys and Tim Pawlentys and Jon Huntsmans - all seem unlikely to succeed in bringing the right together. And if some portion of the right is up for grabs, then there's reason to wonder if Bachmann's run is as wildly out of bounds as it seems at first blush.
When I started to think about writing this post a few weeks ago - before, you know, life and rehearsals intervened - the idea of Bachmann's shot was largely theoretical; this past weekend she lead the race in an Iowa poll. And while I'm leery of poll-based arguments for anything, I think Bachmann's rise in Iowa underscores the reasons to take her seriously... and remember that she does pose, in some respects, a serious potential.
Partly, I think that like Palin, parts of Bachmann's story are touchstones that liberals would be foolish to overlook or try to minimize: Bachmann did not grow up well off, worked her way through college, and by all accounts was a serious successful student (she has a law degree and a Master's). She's been a successful tax lawyer, raised her own kids and taken in some 23 foster children. That's the kind of life many people find admirable, and worth respecting.
As well, Bachmann plays well to a part of the right wing base that loathes the intellectual and class pretensions of the educated, coastal elites. Like Palin, she succeeds in making, as Matt Taibbi puts it, the liberal elite look like assholes:
Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can't tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.
The more Bachmann succeeds in selling this divide, the more difficult it becomes to defuse it, something that, yes, takes admitting that the perception of left wing superiority is not entirely untrue. But Bachmann also succeeds because, for now, there's no one in her way. Without an alternative to her, someone who can take her on and challenge her from the right for her ideas (and her lack of policy proposals), Bachmann sits in a position to clear a lot of the field: if she can beat the big guys in Iowa, if she does reasonably well in New Hampshire (second to Romney would be god enough), and she wins South Carolina, then the argument against her becomes much worse. She'll be taken seriously... because she's taken seriously.
Of course, Bachmann may yet be her own worst enemy: her plain spoken-ness and the fact that she clearly believes at least a good part of what she says will likely lead to more gaffes; and her husband's career as a "Christian counselor" in the antigay therapy movement is an invitation for expose waiting to be delivered. But counting on Bachmann to defeat herself is partly wishful and awfully naive. I don't think she can be President... but her ability to do some real damage doesn't require her to get that far. And that's reason enough to take her seriously, and worry about where all this is headed.