Hold the phone: Michele Bachmann is running for President. True, she participated in the Republican Presidential Primary debate exactly 2 weeks before that–and yes, she has been grandstanding for months trying to gather the steam of the Tea Party movement–but now it’s official, folks.
Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) made her bid announcement from Waterloo, Iowa. I don’t expect the speech to go down as 1 of history’s great statements; on the other hand, it was exemplary Conservative boilerplate–her partisans in particular should be serene. Bachmann’s formal announcement of her presidential bid was not a particularly crucial hurdle for her; she well-exceeded conventional expectations at the 1st Republican Presidential Primary debate, and has emerged as a serious presidential hopeful.
This does not mean she is a serious presidential candidate. On that dimension her fundamentals still look week, and for the very reason she has a natural constituency with the Republican base: She is a partisan, prone to ideological solutions to a preconceived host of national policy problems and a tendency to speak in conventional Conservative messages. Anyone who has followed American politics for years knows that neither the substance nor the form that allow a presidential candidate to mobilize partisans are typically the same that allow him or her to inspire confidence in swing constituencies, or expand the party.
But while I suspect President Obama could claim the middle ground in the expanded turnout context of a 2012 re-election bid against as polarizing of a figure as Bachmann, this doesn’t mean her candidacy doesn’t present a serious strategic challenge to the President. If she makes a very strong showing in the Iowa caucus early next February–a possibility already admitted by the talking heads–she will likely form a major faction in the primary, akin to those developed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during the 2008 Republican presidential primary.
Due to a strong self-representation at the 1st Republican presidential primary debate (as a reflexive Conservative, of course), Bachmann seems to have edged-out pitch-perfectly Conservative but uncharismatic former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as the self-appointed representative of the Libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement within the Republican Party. She also has strong credentials as a social Conservative, which allows her both to get ahead in the Evangelical Christian-heavy Iowa caucuses and likely to rally the voters of the Christian Right, whom otherwise might drift to dark-horse former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA). (Santorum was once a fair-haired darling of the right, but at his political peak the Republican Party was George W. Bush’s party, more-Christian, more-Neoconservative and far more-comfortable with big government. Simply-put, that Republican Party is gone. Santorum comported himself well at the Republican presidential primary debate, but he has failed to distinguish himself in a crowded field where both his ideology and 4 1/2 years out of office evoke doubts.)
Do Bachmann’s strong suits for the primary confer any advantages in the general election against President Obama? The Liberal Ironist can’t see how–though a lot can happen in 16 months in American politics. Bachmann’s partisan profile and personal disposition isn’t as likely to appeal beyond regular Republican voters as Mitt Romney’s. While having the 2nd-largest committed faction of all current Republican Presidential hopefuls–though still a distant 2nd to Romney–Bachmann has little if any obvious means of making a non-partisan appeal to millions of (often inattentive) unaffiliated voters. While recent appearances and her presidential campaign kickoff speech suggest she can continue to exceed expectations, she remains a weak general election candidate.
She is formidable material, on the other hand, as a running mate. If former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or even as-yet-undeclared Texas Governor Rick Perry end up as the party’s nominee, they will lack obvious political or personal inroads to the Midwest, where the most uncommitted Electoral Votes are likely to be in 2012. Governor Romney lacks serious Libertarian credentials and actually instituted the model for President Obama’s Health Care Reform while Governor of Massachusetts. (This led Governor Pawlenty to refer, shortly before his campaign began to fade into the background, to “Obamneycare.”) Both men, if they won their party’s nomination for president, would want to demonstrate that they know and care where there party has moved. And both men would want to campaign competitively in Minnesota and Iowa, 2 States where it seems Bachmann will have an easy time inspiring Conservatives. Would a Romney-Bachmann or Perry-Bachmann ticket leave Bachmann as just another analogue for Mayor Palin? No; Bachmann is at core a very ideological figure, but she is also a very serious one. She has a core of (very Conservative) political beliefs and goals, and to the extent that these qualities can be separated in a presidential candidate, she seems to be running for the sake of these rather than vanity.
None of this is intended to offer assurances, really; Bachmann’s beliefs lend themselves to caricature because they demand little intellectual independence of her, and in the event of a Bachmann presidency, her lack of taste for compromise would likely get her into trouble even with a Republican Congress. But survival adaptations and virtues are 2 different things, in politics as much as anywhere.