It's hard to imagine that Michele Bachmann, even with the Lord filling her sails with the winds of Bible-thumping, honestly believes she's the next president of the United States. It's not just that she's the embodiment of the rightwing extremism that is causing the public to reject the Republican party in unprecedented numbers, but it's also that she, personally, is just too weird. The recent Newsweek cover that created so much complaining about sexism from conservatives may have genuinely crossed a line, but the ugly truth of the matter is that the crazed-snake-handler look is one of Bachmann's three basic facial expressions, and the public is going to get quite the eyeful of it in the coming year.
Beyond that, her associations with people who believe public education is creating a new Holocaust and that slavery was good for slaves, her husband's clinic that conflates fundamentalist hysterics with therapy, and her bragging about how she's "submissive" to her husband make her not just unelectable on a national scale, but someone who won't make it far in the primaries.
But Bachmann isn't really running for president so much as she's running to be the next big rightwing grifter. Rightwing grifters like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin use their past luck in getting elected to create an illusion that they are still politicians (and Palin is still at it: horning in on the publicity surrounding the Iowa straw poll this weekend aboard her bus). By doing so, they're able to get free media coverage to advertise their mini-empires of ghostwritten books, straight-to-DVD movies and direct mail fundraising campaigns to keep their coffers heavy and the hopes of their marks high – all without doing anything so strenuous as actually campaigning or, God forbid, governing.
Bachmann will do her time on the trail, get her name recognition up, win a primary or two to maintain an aura of legitimacy, and then retire to a career of cashing checks from supporters who believe that, any day now, she will take the country back from the secularists, gays and race-mixers.
And our Beltway media is helping her con up every step of the way by lavishing attention on her – even though they know very well that she's not going to win the nomination.
Full disclosure: I'm as guilty as the next political writer. I love writing about Bachmann, because she's an interesting character compared to the dull suits that surround her, one of which will be offered up by the GOP in hopes that his non-offensive demeanour will get him past voters' alarm bells set off by overtly nutty rightwingers. I don't object to all Bachmann coverage, since she creates a good excuse to cover the alarming minority of Americans who are invested in a fantastical fundamentalist Christianity built around twin axes of sexual hysteria and paranoia about the government; this is a group that otherwise too often gets ignored as if comprising harmless cranks.
The Newsweek profile behind the infamous cover photo merits a gold star in responsible journalism: Romano makes the case that Bachmann's campaign really doesn't have legs. You can write about the phenomenon without writing about Bachmann as though she's a for-real candidate.
Still, the ugly reality is that Bachmann is largely a media creation, built up because spectacles sell papers and get mouse fingers a-clicking. Sarah Palin, at least, had a thin foundation for all the spectacle, as she was a vice presidential candidate in 2008, and had a position with some executive power as governor of Alaska, but Congresswoman Bachmann represents a suburban midwestern district, where she represents 0.2% of the population of the United States. That Bachmann is a self-promoting political renegade is the only reason she's in the headlines.
That and Iowa – though "contender in the Iowa GOP caucus" and "headline-grabbing crazy" are synonymous these days. The Iowa caucus is first in the nomination process, and that justifies all sorts of intense coverage of the fanatics and novelty candidates that do well there before fizzling out. This week has been dominated by anticipation of Saturday's Ames straw poll – a poll of Iowa voters taken months before the caucus, and described by Paul Waldman of the American Prospect as "the event with the lowest meaningfulness-to-coverage ratio in the entire presidential campaign".
The poll is too far ahead of the Iowa caucus to matter, but more importantly, the Iowa caucus is too far into speaking-in-tongues territory to matter in the long run. The Iowa caucus did matter many years ago, but last caucus, Mike Huckabee breezily won – only to be decimated later by McCain when Republicans in states less dominated by fundamentalist Christians got to vote. The winner of the Iowa caucus is far likelier to be the winner in a contest of who next gets a talk show on Fox News than to get the presidential nomination.
Could Bachmann win the Iowa caucus? Sure. Not only could she win, but she probably will. The problem is how much of mainstream media pretends this means anything more than it will give Bachmann a chance to make a career out of bilking gullible conservative supporters.
Media flocking to spectacle isn't going away. But while engaging in spectacle, it's important not to mistake the media spectacle for actual electoral politics.
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