Since the election, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has been a no-show on the national stage. The tea-party favorite, once a frequent presence on the cable-news circuit, has retreated from the spotlight. In the aftermath of a failed presidential bid, followed by just barely eking out a win over her Democratic opponent in November, Bachmann has kept her head down.
But at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, Bachmann is reemerging, renewing her connections with the conservatives and tea partiers who fueled her meteoric rise during the summer of 2011 and the early rounds of the Republican presidential primary. She’s slated to deliver a speech on the main stage Saturday. On Friday, she did a series of interviews at CPAC’s radio row, talking to outlets ranging from Tea Party Patriots to NRA News. Trailing her was an adoring throng of fans, holding up their cell phones and tablets to snap photos of the onetime Iowa-straw-poll winner. When radio host Rusty Humphries interviewed Bachmann, he turned to the crowd and said, “Does anybody here like Michele Bachmann?” There were loud whoops and cheers in response.
Among tea-party activists, Bachmann remains a popular figure. Breitbart columnist Larry O’Connor lavishly praised her after following her at a CPAC event, saying, “Andrew Breitbart thought she was heroic.” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, agrees: “She’s one of the principled fighters who stood up, embraced our values, and promoted our values.”
But going forward, Bachmann may be switching courses from cable-news darling to legislative workhorse. “She’s agreed to work with us in building more of a presence on Capitol Hill, not so much making waves with big rallies and being provocative in media, but behind the scenes, doing the hard work so that we can actually influence policy decisions,” says Niger Innis, chief strategist for TeaParty.net.
“She has reemerged a little bit below the radar screen, very purposefully below the radar screen,” Innis adds. “But she’s going to be working very closely with us behind the scenes to lead our tea-party caucus, reestablishing de facto tea-party caucuses in both houses of Congress.”
Based on the remarks Bachmann made before handing out a blogger-of-the-year award at a TeaParty.net event in a side room at CPAC, she’s also spent a fair chunk of time rethinking how conservatives should talk. She still advocates personal responsibility, but she’s also devoting significant time to defending tea partiers as compassionate. Gone are references to her “titanium spine” and boasts about being President Obama’s “chief critic.” They’ve been replaced by terms such as “community” and “caring.”
“We talk a lot as libertarians, as conservatives, as Republicans, we talk about personal responsibility, embracing life, standing on our own,” Bachmann says to CPAC attendees. “But to a lot of people, when they hear that, it sounds selfish to them.”
That’s just not right, she continues. “There’s nothing selfish about it. Because you have to have enough just to survive, and you have to have a little bit more to help somebody else.”
To illustrate her point, Bachmann talks about how her daughter saved up money to avoid onerous student loans while in college. Now, free from that burden, she has chosen to go to Haiti to help orphans “because she has enough and a little bit more.”
“That’s what we’re about,” Bachmann says. “That’s what this country has always been about: An opportunity to come, an opportunity to have the dignity of supplying for yourself and little bit more for somebody else.”
She praises the young adults in the room as being part of a generation that “really truly care[s].” Then Bachmann makes a pitch for limited government: “I don’t think it’s caring when our government is taking away money from you that you need; it’s not caring when gasoline doesn’t have to be $4 a gallon. It could be $2 a gallon.”
And Bachmann isn’t accepting the idea that the 2012 election signaled a defeat for the conservative movement — or for her.
“We are about a future, we are about a hope,” she says, as the CPAC group looks on. “We don’t curse the darkness. We light a candle. This is not doom and gloom. We are living in the most exciting time.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.