I’ve been listening to people on our side from Fox pundits to Ann Coulter spout their theories about why Michele Bachmann can’t win. I think they’re off base. The ground is shifting under our feet, and yesterday’s formulas about who has what experience, who appeals to what niche, and who has a “path to victory,” are outdated.
The dynamic force in politics today is the Tea Party — not as an entity, but because it’s not an organization. It is a grass-roots movement of ordinary Americans in a right-of-center country who have common sense and think Washington and the Big Government, Big Spending ruling class have to be swept away. Political pundits are not good at understanding and gauging the effect of mass movements.
Pawlenty’s attack on Bachmann didn’t work for the same reason the conventional wisdom about Bachmann’s candidacy doesn’t work: You are not going to impress ordinary Americans, who think the system is broken, by bragging about how much experience you have in the system. I’m not saying Pawlenty was a bad governor — from everything I’ve read, he seems to have done a very good job under difficult blue-state constraints. But a case built on governing experience, which tells voters: “I know how to make this system work and get better results” is not going to bowl over people who think the system needs dramatic overhaul. They don’t want to hear about the results you’re going to get in Washington; they want to hear how you’re going to transfer money and power out of Washington. They want to know how you’re going to stop Washington from destroying our present and stealing their kids’ future.
We are not in the Seventies anymore, or even the Nineties. I remember thinking, during my old boss Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in ‘08, that the strategists who had the candidate’s ear were nuts. They concocted this plan to sit out some of the “smaller” primaries and forge the big make-or-break stand in Florida, weeks later. I don’t pretend to be a political strategist, but I don’t think you have to be to know the assumptions premised on a bygone media era are obsolete. Campaigns and primaries are no longer regional events; they are televised extravaganzas. The candidates who thrive are the ones who stay in the public eye and shine when the light is on them.
The press now covers the Iowa straw-poll more intensely than it used to cover the California primary. To draw an analogy, let’s say the World Series were played between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. They may be small markets, but it’s still the World Series — as an event, it’s not two comparatively small towns, it’s a national showcase covered by national media and talked about 24/7 on sports talk-radio, ESPN, and all the would-be ESPNs sprouting up across the country.
Small state primaries, caucuses, and — we’re seeing — even straw polls are the same thing. They are mass-media events that capture the public’s attention. If they’re playing the games, you’ve got to be competing in them and you’ve got to shine. If you do, you’ve got a shot; if you don’t, you’re forgotten. You’re not campaigning to Iowans; you’re campaigning to America.
Michele has been campaigning to America. She is also smart, attractive, and telegenic. She’s got charisma, as well as sharp eyes and ears for the issues on which she can separate herself and the biting examples/phrases that will get her points across. She is in Washington but not of Washington. By being very public on Obamacare, overregulation of business, the budget-deal shenanigans, and the debt ceiling, she’s gotten to a place where she is seen as putting Washington — both parties — on trial in a very public way that resonates with the Tea Party. And by Tea Party, again, I mean a mass movement of ordinary, commonsense Americans, many of whom used to be known as “Reagan Democrats.” These are folks who think the country is broken. While they’re stunned by the Obama Left’s brazenness in governing against the public will, they have no faith that the Republican establishment is the answer to fixing what is wrong. They see Bachmann as outside the establishment.
Michele also appeals to them as a person of strong religious faith who lives it in her life without hitting you over the head with it. She thinks conservatism is compassionate because she’s convinced it leads to prosperity, and prosperity will lift people in a way government can’t. And she doesn’t apologize for thinking that way — she embraces it. She actually looks like she’s having fun.
You can’t dismiss that just because she hasn’t spent the last two or three decades climbing to the next public office. The permanent political class has failed the country. Therefore, not being a part of it is an advantage, not a minus. And the question is not whether a “mere” member of the House has a “path to the nomination.” It is how Bachmann performs in the spotlight in comparison to Romney, Perry, Obama, or whoever else. I don’t see how you can watch the interviews she did yesterday — some hostile, all challenging — and not start thinking: “Well, she’s poised, she’s got a supple mind, her answers always manage to bring it around to the point she wants to make, and she makes it. She thinks that giving Obama a $2.4 trillion blank check is crazier than forcing drastic cuts in government programs (the big divide between the Tea Party and the ruling class). And she works hard but she looks like she’s enjoying herself. Man, those guys have their work cut for them if they want to outshine her.”
None of this necessarily means she will win. Mitt has run a good campaign so far — good in the debates, a frontrunner keeping unforced errors to a minimum. Rick Perry is an impressive, savvy guy, and he’ll do well. Obama is the media’s guy — they won’t scrub his background, they’ll try to cover for him when he screws up, and they will help his campaign try to destroy whoever is nominated on our side. This is a long haul, with miles and miles yet to go — and since the world does not stand still, we don’t now know what events we’ll be talking about next summer and fall. But I think it’s clear that Michele is connecting with the dynamic movement in the country — a movement that the punditocracy has repeatedly and vastly underestimated. And that’s a big part of why they’ve so underestimated her. The people who say she can’t win are the same people who dismissed her as a serious candidate — as someone who could get as far as she’s already gotten.
She can win. She may not win, but it’s a mistake to dismiss the possibility.