11 August 2011


My hunch is that one year from now, Rep. Michele Bachmann will be remembered as the Howard Dean of 2012: a candidate who spent a year before the actual voting began being hyped to the skies as the story of the campaign, only to sputter as soon as votes were cast. Those early caucuses and primaries really boil down to boots on the ground, and the love of Tea Partiers across the country won't count for anything if it can't be translated into a massive retail-politics workforce in Iowa. Bachmann is thought to have some advantages in the caucus state, but Gov. Perry of Texas has not yet begun to fight, and right-wingers all over America have a strange love for Texans. Also, a magazine article this week may have done Bachmann some lasting damage.

I am not talking about the infamous Newsweek cover story, which proves to be an insubstantial affair -- two pages of text following a two-page photo. I get the feeling that Lois Romano actually reports nothing new here, while there's very little input from Bachmann herself. The congresswoman denies that she embodies "anger," insisting that she and her supporters are simply "saying the country is not working." But Newsweek dubs her the "Queen of Rage" and sees her ultimate vulnerability in not just her own but the Tea Partiers' perceived radicalism and declining popularity among Americans in general. A great deal of fuss has been made, and not just in the Bachmann camp, about the August 15 cover, but I don't really understand the controversy. It's said that the cover photo makes her look crazy, but the real offense, I suspect, is that it makes her look all of her 55 years.

It wouldn't surprise me, however, if Bachmann's people made a conscious decision to complain about Newsweek in order to focus people's attention there rather than on Ryan Lizza's profile of the candidate in the current New Yorker, which is both more substantial and more damning. This issue has its own provocative cover: a cartoon, as usual, illustrating three top-hatted millionaires sipping champagne on a lifeboat as a stock-stricken steamship goes down with many helpless silhouettes still on board. A sympathetic profile of Bachmann is not to be expected inside.

Lizza allows us to infer that Bachmann embraced authoritarian Christianity as a teenager so God could make up for the lack of a strong father figure in her life. This champion of family values is a child of divorce; like many such people, she takes commitment very seriously -- and that's the problem. Her career as a Christian, a student, an activist and a politician has been shaped, Lizza relates, by a particularly pernicious form of faith called Dominionism (or Dominion Theology). She and her husband were influenced by the filmed lectures of Francis Schaeffer, a major influence on the politicization of evangelicals in the 1970s. Schaeffer was merely a cranky intellectual until the Roe v. Wade decision, which made it imperative, in his opinion, for Christians to take over the government -- by force if necessary, Lizza reports. Bachmann continues to tout Schaeffer's lectures on the campaign trail, telling an Iowa audience that he opened her eyes so that "we understood life now from a Biblical world view." Bachmann attended Oral Roberts University, where she was John Eidsmoe's research assistant for his book Christianity and the Constitution. Eidsmoe, who has endorsed the principle of secession, wrote that American culture "should be permeated with a distinctively Christian flavoring." Again, Bachmann still praises Eidsmoe as a mentor, while he tells Lizza that Bachmann's present views are fully consistent, as far as he can tell, with his own writings. While it isn't clear from Lizza's interviews with Eidsmoe or Bachmann whether she upholds secessionism, Lizza discovers that one of Bachmann's favorite books is a sympathetic biography of Robert E. Lee whose author defends slavery as a civilizing influence on pagan Africans. At the start of her political career, she became involved in Summit Ministries, an "educational organization" opposed to homosexuality and secular humanism, while founder David A. Noebel once denounced the Beatles as hypnotic agents of the international communist conspiracy.

A lot of this information could be dismissed as circumstantial evidence, except for Bachmann's recent endorsements of all these thinkers. At the very least, Lizza's findings should put the candidate in the same position Senator Obama was in during his presidential campaign, when he was compelled to clarify his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It might have been wise to clarify now, in a low-profile setting, but Lizza tells us that Bachmann blew off his questions about Francis Schaeffer. He notes that "the success of her campaign will rest partly on her ability to keep these influences, which she has talked about for years, out of the public discussion." It'd seem to be too late for that now, but what Republican will actually want to attack Bachmann for being, so to speak, too much of a Christian. Not prayer-meeting Rick Perry, certainly. Certainly not Mitt Romney, who'd have no business questioning anyone else's religious particulars. Maybe this is the weapon with which her would-be nemesis Tim Pawlenty can finally score a telling blow, if only he can do so without appearing to oppose the entire Christian Right. Pawlenty might despise Bachmann just enough to take the chance, but the rest of us, fortunately, don't have to depend on Republicans to keep this issue on the agenda.

Update: 12 August. Pawlenty had his own line of attack at last night's debate, and the line of the night was his, at Bachmann's expense. Commenting on her boasts of legislative leadership, her fellow Minnesotan detailed the Democratic congressional victories of 2009-10 and advised her: "If that's your idea of leadership, please stop, because you're killing us!" But the big story of the Ames debate has proved Ryan Lizza something of a profit. Byron York didn't pursue Bachmann's theocratic connections to my knowledge, but he captured headlines by asking whether she, as a conservative Christian, would "submit" to her husband while she was President of the United States. Bachmann echoed her past responses to such inquiries; she understands "submission" to mean no more than a show of respect, and insists that the biblical mandate to submit is a mutual one. The following day, Ex-Gov. Palin was asked during her travels what she thought of such things. She appeared blissfully contemptuous, telling the reporters that she couldn't imagine her husband telling her what to do. For a moment, I almost wanted Palin to join the campaign at last and fulfill my fantasy of a hilarious pseudo-intellectual catfight between the Republican titans.

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