Clarence Page: Bye-bye to Bachmann’s Twitter-era politics

Jun. 05, 2013 @ 05:20 PM

Rep. Michele Bachmann got it backwards in her surprising retirement announcement. Many of her “mainstream liberal media” critics will miss her, especially the fact-checkers.
“I fully anticipate,” the Minnesota Republican declared in an eight-minute, 40-second, video, “the mainstream liberal media to put a detrimental spin on my decision.”
Detrimental? To whom? If anyone’s political stardom has thrived on negative coverage, it is hers.
She roared into national attention during an October 2008 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. That’s when she called for news media to “do a penetrating expose” of then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and “the views of people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or anti-America.”
Her sound bites quickly turned into the sort of Internet “viral moment,” as political consultants say, that turns into instant cash for campaign coffers — and for Bachmann, more media appearances.
With a flair for passionate catchphrases (she called herself a “constitutional conservative”) and a casual disregard for factual precision, she rode the rise of the polarized tea party era like a rodeo star. She helped to found the tea party caucus, and in August 2011 she became the first female presidential hopeful to win the Grand Old Party’s Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.
Alas, that turned out to be the high point of her campaign. When Iowa Republicans held their actual 2012 caucuses, she came in sixth. But she never stopped talking. In a tea party movement that deliberately avoids conventional national leaders or structure, she filled a niche as an uncompromising voice, unrestrained by mere facts.
Rep. Michele Bachmann’s spectacular rise, only to flame out with her announcement that she wouldn’t run again, offers a lesson in Twitter Age politics. It demonstrates how much leverage can be harvested out of other people’s anger, fears and raging suspicions, regardless of whether you have your facts straight.
We can look back nostalgically now on some of her other memorable declarations: That the American Revolution began in Concord, N.H., instead of Concord, Mass.; that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation; that John Wayne came from her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa (Oops! She confused him with serial killer John Wayne Gacy); that the U.S. government is plotting death panels and re-education camps; and that census data maybe, just maybe, could be used to put people in internment camps, as the government did to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
PolitiFact found 75 percent of the 59 Bachmann statements it has checked turned out to be mostly false or “Pants on Fire,” their worst rating. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler found that Bachmann told a higher percentage of falsehoods that received “four-Pinocchios,” the Post’s worst rating, than any other member of Congress.
Scandalous revelations that the IRS unfairly singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny before awarding nonprofit tax status have given new energy to the tea party movement. Nothing fuels paranoid movements like evidence that somebody really is out to get them.
With Republicans expecting to make gains in next year’s mid-term elections, Bachmann’s announcement of her retirement after four terms came as a surprise. “Be assured my decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being re-elected to Congress,” she said, which is what incumbents often say when they really are concerned about getting re-elected.
Last time, even though she spent 12 times more money than her challenger, Democrat Jim Graves, she won by only one percentage point. Now Graves has dropped out of the 2014 race, too. With Bachmann out, his job would have been tougher in that heavily Republican district.
She also has the burden of federal investigators looking into her previous campaign fundraising. That doesn’t help. But after she weathers this storm, she seems well suited for a new career in the last refuge of former political stars, TV commentary. Just keep the fact checkers ready.
As for her supporters, her departure offers the more conventional Republican leadership an opportunity to fill the void and it offers the tea party movement something new to be angry about. Everybody wins.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.