Des Moines, Iowa — Things look different in the Midwest. Back in Washington, people are talking about Pres. Barack Obama’s poor showing this past week. (Did you see that Maureen Dowd has turned against him?) In Iowa, they’re focused on the state Republicans’ presidential straw poll in Ames next Saturday. And in Wisconsin, they just got through counting the votes in a recall election that has great national significance.
In Iowa, most of the focus has been on Rep. Michele Bachmann. She’s only in her third term in the House, and she hasn’t sponsored any major legislation; she has no executive experience in government. Her Iowa headquarters, in a suburban shopping mall near a Panera Bread cafe, opened only two months ago. But the buzz is that she has a serious chance to come in first in the straw poll — and far ahead of her Minnesota neighbor, former governor Tim Pawlenty, who several months ago seemed destined to carry Iowa.
What’s working for Bachmann was on display when I saw her address 100 employees in an advertising firm in West Des Moines on Wednesday. She’s short and thin — one might almost say petite — but she takes command immediately, her voice booming over the microphone, speaking without hesitation or a single uh or ah.
“I’ve lived a real life,” she says. “I’m not a politician.” She weaves deftly into her talk the fact that she’s a tax lawyer, that she and her husband started a small business and raised five children and gave a home to 23 foster children. She talks of the burden of Obamacare on small businesses and calls for free choice for everyone — including the elderly — in health insurance. She says individuals should pay for the health insurance they choose with tax-free money — a homier way of saying she would eliminate the tax preference for employer-provided insurance.
She has a gift for making abstract issues concrete. Rather than cite the amount of the stimulus package, she notes that before it passed, there was one person in the Department of Transportation making more than $170,000 a year and afterward there were 1,690 doing so.
She says that she voted against raising the federal debt ceiling and that she knew the compromise legislation would hurt America’s credit rating. She also says she believes in principle more than party. “I think I’m somebody already,” she says. “I don’t need to be president.” And she gives her listeners the sense that she believes that each of them is somebody, too.
Bachmann’s campaign, I am told, is using social media brilliantly to network with like-minded people and to get them to the straw poll in Ames. But the secret ingredient is the candidate herself. The Pawlenty headquarters has a sign reading “Results. Not Rhetoric.” But what Bachmann is offering is not so much rhetoric — her language couldn’t be more plain — but empathy, empathy for people who seek not pity, but self-respect.
Bachmann did not mention cultural issues in West Des Moines, nor did she make reference to Wisconsin’s Tuesday recall election. But the Wisconsin result will have major reverberations in reducing the power of public-employee unions. Republican legislators in Wisconsin passed Gov. Scott Walker’s measures reducing the unions’ bargaining powers and ending the automatic deduction of union dues from public workers’ paychecks. The unions spent some $20 million in trying to recall six Republican state senators; they needed to recall three in order to deprive Republicans of their majority. They got only two. It was a narrow victory for Republicans, just as the 7,000-vote victory of a Republican state-supreme-court justice in April was narrow.
But it was a victory — and a big contrast with the momentous defeat then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered in 2005 on four ballot propositions that would have limited public-employee unions’ powers in California. Unions there spent something like $100 million on that election. Now the state government is headed toward insolvency, and the state has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
Wisconsin Republicans won, and Bachmann has been surging, despite the fact that their opponents raised and spent much more money and despite the ridicule and rancor of the chattering classes. They are evidence that out here in the Midwest, and in the nation generally, there are a lot of little people — somebodies — who want to see big government reined in.
— Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 The Washington Examiner.