Attack dog of the right

August 1, 2011

Nicole Colson looks at the politics of rising Republican star Michele Bachmann--and why she, and the politics she represents, can't be written off.

HOW DID this woman become a potential frontrunner in Republican presidential politics?

No, not Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman--the other "folksy," anti-gay, anti-choice, Tea Party-lovin' Republican female politician currently in the national spotlight.

At one time, the idea that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann might be a credible candidate--let alone a frontrunner--for the Republican presidential nomination might have seemed ludicrous. But at least some recent polls have shown the congresswoman pulling ahead of more "moderate" Republican Mitt Romney in Iowa.

Granted, there's a long way to go between today and Election Day. But how can it be that a politician who's consistently known for her outlandish statements, Stone Age politics and desire to shred the social safety net can be considered a serious contender?

The past weeks of the debt ceiling debate have been instructive about the way in which Bachmann and her ilk in Congress operate. A small group of congressional representatives, including Bachmann, appeared to almost hold the country hostage to their ideological whims--demanding ever more and deeper cuts to social spending and zero tax hikes for the wealthy.

Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann (Gage Skidmore)

But Bachmann and her cohorts are not, as the media makes it seem, a rogue group of right-wingers out of control. Instead, they are attack dogs let off the leash--leading what is, at its heart, a bipartisan charge to make workers and the poor pay, full stop, for the economic crisis.

YOU CAN'T accuse the Minnesota congresswoman of being boring. Bachmann regularly lets loose with one mind-boggling comment after another, often leaving observers wondering how a human being who's so ruthlessly ignorant can have made it so far in our political system.

But even a cursory glance at Bachmann's politics proves that she's gotten as far as she has by making a name for herself as a staunch right-winger, pseudo-populist and social conservative who champions policies that benefit the wealthy.

Last month, Bachmann, along with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), signed onto a pledge put out by Family Leader, a group run by powerful Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats. The pledge, titled "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family," condemns adultery, "quickie divorce," infidelity, pornography, cohabitation and Islamic sharia law--all issues close to the heart of today's right-wing social conservatives.

But the pledge went even further. In addition to calling homosexuality a "choice," in an eye-popping passage, it implied that Black children were actually better off under slavery because there were more two-parent families (not including, one imagines, the slave masters that owned them). "Slavery had a disastrous impact on African American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA's first African American president," the statement read.

Instead of just apologizing for signing onto such an outrageous statement, the Bachmann campaign actually dug in a little deeper. "She signed the 'candidate vow,'" campaign spokesperson Alice Stewart said, adding, "In no uncertain terms, Congresswoman Bachmann believes that slavery was horrible and economic enslavement is also horrible."

Economic enslavement? Presumably, that includes libertarian whipping posts like health care reform and the national debt--which Bachmann has also publicly referred to as "slavery" in the past.

More dangerous for millions of working Americans, Bachmann has called in the past for the abolishment of the minimum wage--under the bizarre notion that doing so would spur job growth.

While testifying in front of the Minnesota Senate in 2005, Bachmann said, "Literally, if we took away the minimum wage--if conceivably it was gone--we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level."

Of course, this conservative fantasy is in no way close to true. Even lowering the minimum wage would be disastrous for the economy--leading to an economic contraction as families' purchasing power was cut. Abolishing the minimum wage entirely would open the door even further to modern-day wage-slavery and McJobs--in addition to a new depression.

BACHMANN SEEMS to have a particular--almost pathological, one might say--fixation on the supposed "threat" that gays pose to society. According to the Washington Post:

Michele Bachmann has called gay marriage "probably the biggest issue that will impact our state and our nation in the last, at least, 30 years." In 2005, she ran screaming from a bathroom at a constituent forum, claiming that a lesbian had attempted to keep her there against her will. (The woman said she was merely questioning Bachmann about her position on gay marriage.) As a state senator, she was seen crouching behind hedges to observe a gay rights rally. (She has explained that she was checking the turnout.)

Bachmann also has a unique take on American history--suggesting earlier this year that America's founding fathers created a color-blind capitalist utopia, and worked tirelessly to abolish slavery.

"It didn't matter the color of their skin. It didn't matter their language. It didn't matter their economic status," Bachmann told the group Iowans for Tax Relief, describing the experience of early settlers in America. "It didn't matter whether they descended from known royalty or are of a higher class or a lower class. It made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn't that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable."

Except, of course, it's completely untrue. In addition to the enslavement of Africans, class and gender were used, among other things, to deny huge swaths of people the right to vote.

Bachmann went on to add that while slavery was still tolerated when the nation began, the "very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States," including John Quincy Adams. She conveniently skipped over the fact that founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves--or the pesky fact that slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. She also seemed unaware that John Quincy Adams wasn't a founding father--and actually died 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

"TOLERANCE" APPEARS to be a word that's absent from Bachmann's vocabulary.

In June, Bachmann and her husband Marcus left the church that they had been members of for more than a decade--likely because of potential political fallout. The Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., is an evangelical Lutheran church that, among other things, opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. But the real whopper is the church's view of Catholicism. It states on its website: "We identify the Antichrist as the Papacy. This is an historical judgment based on scripture."

During the last presidential campaign, Bachmann was one of the loudest voices condemning Barack Obama for his association with left-wing Rev. Jeremiah Wright. There's been no comment from the candidate, however, on whether she thinks her former church's view that the Pope is, you know, Satan, is beyond the pale in any way.

Nor has Bachmann explained her own hypocrisy when it comes to economic matters.

For someone who claims to hate government handouts, Michele Bachmann sure takes enough of them. Bachmann's financial disclosure statements in 2009 and 2010 show her getting between $15,000 and $50,000 from the "Bachmann Family Farm LP"--a far cry from Bachmann's claim that she has "never gotten a penny" from it. The farm itself was the recipient of upward of $250,000 in government subsidies.

Likewise, clinics run by Bachmann's husband Marcus have received at least $161,000 in state and federal funding--money that they use, in part, to try to "cure" homosexuality with so-called "reparative therapy." This "therapy" amounts to little more than telling gay youth that homosexuality is a choice and that they can "pray away the gay"--and it is strongly condemned by both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association.

Although Marcus Bachmann claims his clinics don't try to "cure" gay youth, a recent exposé by Mariah Blake in The Nation detailed the truth. In 2004, when high school senior Andrew Ramirez told his family he was, they sent him to Bachmann & Associates in Lake Elmo, Minn. There, according to Ramirez,

his therapist...made it clear that renouncing his sexual orientation was the only moral choice. "He basically said being gay was not an acceptable lifestyle in God's eyes," Ramirez recalls. According to Ramirez, his therapist then set about trying to "cure" him. Among other things, he urged Ramirez to pray and read the Bible, particularly verses that cast homosexuality as an abomination, and referred him to a local church for people who had given up the "gay lifestyle." He even offered to set Ramirez up with an ex-lesbian mentor.

As recently as last summer, Marcus Bachmann referred to gays as "barbarians" in a radio interview. When asked by an interviewer, "What do you say when your teenager says she's gay?" he responded, "We have to understand, barbarians need to be educated. They need to be disciplined, and just because someone feels it or thinks it doesn't mean that we're supposed to go down that road."

Behind her "folksy" charm, Bachmann has a nasty streak that wouldn't be out of place on J. Edgar Hoover's red squads.

During the last presidential campaign, Bachmann used revelations about Barack Obama's passing association with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers to call for a witch-hunt of congressional liberals, suggesting they were anti-American. When asked by Hardball host Chris Matthews, "How many people in the Congress of the United States do you suspect as being anti-American?" she replied, "What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating exposé and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think people would love to see an exposé like that."

WHILE BACHMANN may seem slightly unhinged, the truth is that she's no political "rogue." Instead, she and the rest of her Tea Party cohorts are fulfilling their role as an ideological battering ram for the ruling class.

Bachmann got to where she is by parlaying her social conservatism--particularly her opposition to same-sex marriage--into a political career.

As's Alex Pareene noted last month:

Before Bachmann was a Tea Party-affiliated Ron Paul fan obsessed with "liberty," remember, she was a traditional religious right fanatic with a degree from Oral Roberts University, who got into politics through antiabortion activism and who became famous for a school board run during which she and her allies supported teaching creationism in government-funded charter schools. (She is a home-schooling activist, which made a school board run kind of weird, but she was outraged at the idea of state standards forcing her to teach her children about anything other than Austrian economics and eschatology.)

In 2004, Bachmann, then a Minnesota state senator, proposed a ban on same-sex marriage and catapulted herself into the state political spotlight. At a rally at the state Capitol that year, she told the crowd that gay marriage would mean "immediate loss of civil liberties for five million Minnesotans...In our public schools, whether they want to or not, they'll be forced to start teaching that same-sex marriage is equal, that it is normal and that children should try it."

The rise of the faux-populist Tea Party in the 2008 election presented Bachmann with a new opportunity to recast herself as libertarian, and she went on to found a Tea Party caucus in Congress.

This kind of transformation is a formula she's used throughout her political career. Noting her ability to seize on various issues in order to cast herself as a "political outsider," political scientist Lawrence Jacobs told the New York Times, "That's her recipe: find the issue, then use it politically to mobilize previously marginalized or disconnected groups. For those of us who followed her from the beginning, it's like reading a romance novel with a formula."

Bachmann can't be counted out of the Republican presidential race. Although she continues to lag behind Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney in money, polls show her gaining ground in popularity among likely Republican voters.

IN THE coming days, politicians like Bachmann will be blamed for supposedly "hijacking" the debate over the debt ceiling. But the truth is that Bachmann and others on the hard right of the Republican Party are helping to deliver precisely what the ruling class wants--with little opposition from either side of the aisle.

While many of those who voted for Obama in 2008 are upset at the administration's many giveaways to Corporate America, the real issue is not whether Obama and the Democrats are simply "weak" in the face of the Republicans' backlash against even the most modest liberal measures.

Instead, as noted in a recent editorial, politicians like Bachmann are useful not only to the Republican right, but to the Democrats as well--as a way of obscuring the Democrats' pro-corporate agenda and long tradition of making promises to their working-class base at election time, but delivering the policies demanded by the bankers, CEOs and Pentagon brass.

Not only are Democrats giving Bachmann and others like her an opening by not opposing the right-wing policies they represent, but they are shamelessly using the threat of "President Bachmann" to scare the liberal Democratic base, once again, into voting for a candidate and a party that are equally committed to attacking workers and the poor.

As's Glenn Greenwald noted about the debt ceiling "debate," the president and his party can now blame the fact that Republicans ultimately succeeded in getting pretty much everything they wanted--including devastating cuts to the social safety net--on the supposed right-wing "fringe" like Bachmann, even though Obama's own plan was always geared toward the same essential goals of massive spending cuts and austerity for U.S. workers and the poor.

As Greenwald put it:

How can the leader of the Democratic Party wage an all-out war on the ostensible core beliefs of the Party's voters in this manner and expect not just to survive, but thrive politically? Democratic Party functionaries are not shy about saying exactly what they're thinking in this regard:

"Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said polling data showed that at this point in his term, Mr. Obama, compared with past Democratic presidents, was doing as well or better with Democratic voters. 'Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day, the one thing they're absolutely certain of--they're going to hate these Republican candidates,' Mr. Mellman said. 'So I'm not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.'"

In other words: it makes no difference to us how much we stomp on liberals' beliefs or how much they squawk, because we'll just wave around enough pictures of Michele Bachmann and scare them into unconditional submission. That's the Democratic Party's core calculation: from "hope" in 2008 to a rank fear-mongering campaign in 2012.

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