Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Here’s some news to dry House Speaker John Boehner’s tears.
I called to get a statement on Egypt from Minnesota Representative and House Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann and was told by her press secretary that, in spite of numerous requests, she wouldn’t be giving any interviews this week while she concentrates on district work.
What a break, as Bachmann would be unlikely to follow the Republican leadership in praising President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis in Cairo. Boehner, since lifting the speaker’s gavel, has had to spend too much time managing Bachmann, who can draw cameras with the lift of a penciled eyebrow. So her silence since last week’s renegade response to the president’s State of the Union speech must sound golden.
Boehner’s opportunity to rope the new crop of Tea Party members into his agenda runs through Bachmann. She isn’t making it easy.
After Boehner handpicked House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan for the high-profile role of rebutting Obama’s speech, in swept Bachmann to make a separate but equal -- at least in the judgment of CNN -- response on behalf of the Tea Party. Who knew one wasn’t enough?
Could there be a more vivid demonstration of the divide between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party? Bachmann went rogue and no one could stop her. Boehner said “other obligations” kept him from watching her performance. But lots of other people watched, as it grew from a Web-only event to live coverage on CNN, to the consternation of Republicans who wanted it buried.
It wasn’t a boffo performance. Looking into the camera feeding the Web, she looked odd on the more important camera, the one providing pool coverage to CNN, among others. Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, whose conservative credentials are sterling, criticized Bachmann -- “To try to upend Paul Ryan was just wrong” -- only to take it all back the next day.
Boehner has to find a way to control the diva in his midst or lose the opportunity to show Republicans can get things done. Boehner successfully kept her from winning a leadership spot and instead put her on the Intelligence Committee, which keeps secrets and prohibits cameras. My money’s on Bachmann to find a way to stay in the spotlight.
Comparisons are inevitable to the other rogue Republican, Sarah Palin, whose own comments on the State of the Union proved only that four-letter wordplay isn’t completely off-limits in the family’s Alaska compound.
Drawn to TV
Like Palin, Bachmann realized early on that TV is easy and governing is hard. She hasn’t quit elected office to write books and put her family in a reality show (although it would be riveting: her husband runs a counseling clinic, they have five children and have opened their home to 23 foster children) but is nonetheless ubiquitous on air. And like Palin, Bachmann is keener on herself than on any agenda her party might have.
No amount of nonsense has held her back.
She said she wouldn’t fill out her 2010 Census forms because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used such information to round up Japanese nationals for internment during World War II. She credited the Founding Fathers with ending slavery.
She latched onto an India newspaper’s unattributed and unsupported claim that Obama’s trip there last year would cost $200 million a day, a preposterous sum. She says Obama runs a “gangster government” and is taking the U.S. on “the final leap to socialism.” She voted against efforts to help people facing foreclosure. Yet her family pocketed $251,973 in federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2006, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog.
Bachmann, a lawyer educated at Oral Roberts University, was a Democrat until she was turned off by the writings of Gore Vidal, she says. She says she fasted three days before deciding to run for Congress in 2006, ultimately launching a campaign based on fervid opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Like Delaware Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell, she found herself in the bushes one day as she checked out a rally for gay marriage, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She was only trying to assess turnout, she explained.
Nowadays, she’s equally obsessed with deficits and health care. Her alliance with the Tea Party was cemented when she spoke at a rally on the Capitol grounds against Obamacare and the crowd chanted her name.
While insisting she isn’t the leader of the movement, because it shouldn’t have one, she’s the elected official (as opposed to the unelected Palin) who comes closest.
With 88 percent of Republicans telling a Gallup/USA Today poll that congressional leaders should take into account the Tea Party’s ideals when developing policy, Boehner can’t afford to offend Bachmann, who is better known than any member of his leadership team. Now that she’s considering a run for president in 2012, she’s assured near-round-the-clock coverage for her every utterance.
How far will Bachmann go in her quest for Tea Party and world domination? She could prove her clout by organizing a vote against raising the federal debt ceiling. Then Boehner really would have something to cry about.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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