Whatever else you might think of her, Michele Bachmann is not a flake, despite Chris Wallace's blunt question on Fox News yesterday, nor even a fluke, as her strong showing in yesterday's Des Moines Register poll indicates. She might have a personal history chock full of crazy-sounding anecdotes, and she might be given to saying the sort of incendiary things one might expect from a fringe candidate — but she rakes in campaign cash every time she does. Bachmann is, in fact, remarkably poised and canny about dialing her extremism up or down depending on the crowd, Politico points out this morning, on the occasion of her official entrance into the presidential race.
For instance, at an event crowded with social conservatives in a small town, Bachmann was far more aggressive in talking about abortion than she was later that day at the University of Iowa:
The core message was the same, but its trimmings had changed.
On abortion, a demure Bachmann intoned that while “every life is valuable, that’s not to condemn abortion-minded women who find themselves in a tough situation.” She didn’t mention her religious conversion, but instead touched on the United States military action in Libya, one which many college students are focused on and one that’s far less personal than Bachmann’s life story.
The convenient narrative on Bachmann is that, whatever her skills as a self-promoter might be, she's still far too extreme to win the nomination, or even to poll well beyond a core group of hard-line conservatives and evangelicals. Obviously she's heard that line, too: Bachmann has hired Ed Rollins, an established GOP consultant, and broadened her rhetoric considerably of late. Yes, she's still Ms. Tea Party 2011, but she's reminding us anew that it's a big-tent movement, "an idea and it’s made up of disaffected Democrats that have had it up to here with Barack Obama. It’s made up of independents that have had it up to here with Barack Obama. It’s made up of libertarians who have had it up to here with Barack Obama," Bachmann said recently. That sounds like a candidate who doesn't want to just be a spoiler.
And while much of Bachmann's push for a broader appeal is yoked to her fiscally conservative message, it's worth remembering that the libertarian-ness of the Tea Party was probably oversold when the group emerged during the last election cycle: social conservatism didn't go as far into hiding as some press accounts suggested. Libertarians might have been crucial in helping get gay marriage passed in New York, but even in the afterglow of that celebration, a pair of New York Times articles today reminds us that it's a big country out there: A sobering view of the way forward for gay marriage in other states (" No state referendum or initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage has been defeated at the ballot box") and a wide-angle look at the recent move in many states to ban abortions at the 20th week, support for which promises to be a litmus test for GOP candidates. So Bachmann might need to tone down the rhetoric of her message — as she seems to have figured out — but as far as substance goes, she might not be as far outside the mainstream as the "extremist" label she's so often tagged with might indicate.