Politics & Policy

Bachmann’s Lieutenants

Three’s a crowd for the presidential contender.

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s critics call her a congressional lightweight, for good reason: She does not chair a committee or hold a leadership post. But she is not powerless. On the cable airwaves and in closed-door GOP conference meetings, she can be a force — clashing with party brass and President Obama. At her side, almost always, is a pair of middle-aged conservatives: Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas. These two congressmen, more than any other members, are her cheerleaders, confidants, and political advisers.

The duo’s support is crucial for the Minnesotan, who is considered a tea-party loner by many of her colleagues. They’re more than friends; they’re her in-House soldiers. When Bachmann challenges Speaker John Boehner at GOP strategy sessions, they back her up. When she is criticized by the likes of Chris Matthews, they wag their fingers at her opponents.

They also make for useful press-conference buddies, enabling her to present her own tight-knit bloc to the media, even if they are operating outside the party apparatus and without the blessing of more institutional conservative caucuses, such as the Republican Study Committee. Indeed, if one does an Internet search of congressional news photos, King and Gohmert pop up alongside Bachmann at almost every important interval in her House career.

When Bachmann last year launched an ill-fated bid for the conference chairmanship, they were in her camp, counting noses. When Bachmann created the Tea Party Caucus, they were among the first to sign up. When she began to mull a presidential bid, they counseled her. The evening before the Ames Straw Poll, which Bachmann won, Gohmert warmly introduced her at a campaign event. After her victory, King complimented her message.

The high-profile alliance has been forged over the past four years. The three lawmakers became close soon after Bachmann joined the House in early 2007. At first, Gohmert was stuck by how Bachmann, then a first-term backbencher, rattled House leaders.

“We learned pretty quickly during Republican conferences about who is willing to stand up and say what they really believe, regardless of whether those in leadership are appreciative,” he recalls. Both King and he, already collegial, quickly made her acquaintance. “We tend to migrate toward folks that share the same comfort zones,” Gohmert says.

Since then, they have been inseparable. They pray together, dine together, and huddle on the House floor. At one point, King and Bachmann even shared staff. Yet their unified front can be credited to more than clicking on a personal level. King is a Catholic former construction-company owner; Gohmert is a Baptist former judge. Bachmann is Lutheran attorney. They share an evangelic, tea-party spirit, but their biographies hardly overlap.

In this sense, their three-part harmony is a product of their shared penchant for stirring trouble. King and Gohmert are two congressmen who enjoy pontificating in late-night House “special sessions,” where the usual time restraints don’t apply. In those speeches, they’re often speaking to an empty chamber. With Bachmann, they found someone who could help them take those little-noticed talking points and drop them into the national discussion, be it on Sean Hannity’s set or elsewhere.

In the last couple of years, they began to see that potential ripen into a national political talent, happily encouraging Bachmann to take the reins as she championed their shared causes. This development, aides familiar with both congressmen say, is not a coincidence. From the start, they advised her to think beyond the committee path or low-key rise. “She is not someone who goes out to do little things to put your name on,” King explains. “It’s the big things, the hard things,” he says, with which she has learned to grapple.

But before an issue goes national, it needs buzz — a red-hot quote, a siren call to cable bookers. Both King and Gohmert, fellow moths to the media flame, have shown Bachmann how and when to jump onto an emerging story or policy proposal — even if it has no immediate bearing on internal House GOP policy. To them, what is important is winning the broader argument in Right World. This approach, perhaps, more than any bill or speech, explains much about Bachmann’s style of politics.

Of course, the Bachmann-King-Gohmert tactic — taking swipes at leadership and playing the outside game — has a mixed record. It is debatable whether Bachmann and company played a role in moving Speaker John Boehner away from a grand bargain with President Obama on the debt ceiling. But what is clear is that the trio repeatedly gave leadership headaches. There was never a sense that Bachmann could have forced a mutiny, but her colleagues knew that she could raise hell, taking to the cable networks and talk-radio circuit to make her case against any agreement she found distasteful. To the trio, such gambits matter.

They also leave bruises. Bachmann mounted a similar, no-holds-barred campaign against Boehner’s spending agreement with the president in April. At the time, her handiwork raised a few eyebrows within the conference, with one freshman, Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey (a former football star), criticizing the leadership’s opponents, especially those who use their political celebrity. Bachmann told me then that she could care less about the internal sniping. “Conservatives are not looking for the same-old strategy coming out of our team,” she said. “They want us to stand up and fight for them. And they expect action.”

Bachmann’s contempt for the incremental, for brokering bipartisan deals, drew cheers from conservative blogs, but few within the conference applauded her scorched-earth rhetoric. Not that this tea-party triad minds. And don’t expect that to change. After Labor Day, when Congress reconvenes, King and Gohmert, as ever, will join Bachmann’s ranks on Capitol Hill, tangling with Boehner whenever necessary. A presidential primary may be heating up, but as Gohmert reminds me, “It’s never ‘the speaker is my shepherd, I shall not want,’” regardless of the season.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


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