Tea Party for Two

Illustration by André Carrilho

When Sarah Palin concluded her hide-and-seek, hell-on-wheels bus tour up the Eastern Seaboard last week with a clambake in Seabrook, New Hampshire, she was greeted by the usual cluster of reporters, a clutch of local Republican politicos, and a college student bearing a sign that read IDIOT QUEEN. (“Aren’t you proud to be an American?” she asked the young man, who replied yes. “Right on, that’s good to know, we have that in common!”) On arriving and departing, Palin took questions from the press, holding forth on everything from the debt ceiling (dissing Tim Geithner) to Afghanistan (slamming Hamid Karzai). But regarding the question on everybody’s mind—is she running for president?—she continued to perform her coy and cloying dance of the seven mooseskins. “Why should everyone jump in there right now and start beating each other up in this primary process, showing the other guys our playbook?” she said. “There’s plenty of time for that.”

Palin’s fast and frantic swing through the Granite State came close on the heels of a visit by another charismatic and highly polarizing Republican, Michele Bachmann. But when the Minnesota congresswoman swept through Dover and North Hampton on Memorial Day, she made far fewer bones than the former Alaska governor about her presidential plans. “You’ll know very, very soon,” Bachmann said when her ardent fans implored her to run—a reference to her earlier declaration that she would reveal her intentions sometime this month in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. Asked if a bid by Palin would influence her decision, Bachmann responded, “The person I compare myself to is Barack Obama, and I think that’s a very favorable comparison.”

Bachmann is entitled to that view, but for much of the political class, it’s the side-by-side sizing up of her and Palin that seems more relevant, indeed irresistible. Here you have two hard-right conservative women, each appealing powerfully to the same activist constituencies: Evangelicals and tea-partyers. For some, this has raised the question of whether there is room enough in the race for both of them. For others, that question smacks of sexism—would anyone suggest the same about Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum?

And the point is fair enough. Yet the speculation about Palin and Bachmann is rooted in two political realities of potentially great consequence in the 2012 presidential race: the striking absence in the Republican field of a convincing champion for the most energized elements of the party’s base, and the gaping deficits of passion and flair among the Establisment front-runners.

Palin, of course, possesses both those qualities in abundance, as her bus tour demonstrated once again. From her fetchingly butch turn atop a Harley and in a motorcycle helmet to her Times Square pizza party with Donald Trump, Palin was undeniably, if sometimes wackily, magnetic all week long, drawing zesty crowds and constant cable coverage everywhere she went. As her friend John Coale, a Washington attorney, put it to Politico, she “sucked all the oxygen out of the [Republican presidential] contest … The rest of the field were buried by her.”

What the Palin bus tour also showed was the mile-wide width of the mischief-making streak she has. Though she claimed that it was merely “coincidental” that her presence in New Hampshire coincided with Mitt Romney’s official presidential announcement, the claim would have been a mite more believable had she (a) not picked a spot of no historic import to visit that happened to be just twelve miles from his event and (b) not attacked Romney on his greatest area of vulnerability, health care, not long before he began to speak. The cumulative result: On the front page of the next morning’s Manchester Union Leader, there was Palin—with Romney consigned to page A3.

For anyone wondering what effect Palin might have on the race if she doesn’t decide to run, this provided a decent clue. With her ability to command headlines undiminished, even after the rough months she suffered in the wake of the Tucson shootings, and her cadre of supporters still substantial, she can make life punishingly difficult—or joyfully pleasant—for any of the actual contestants. Palin has the power to play the part of queen as kingmaker.

Does she want a larger role than that? The conventional wisdom holds that she does not. That Palin is doing none of the things (building an organization, courting donors, stroking local party players, honing a coherent message) that all candidates must to become viable factors in any presidential race. That she is simply burnishing her brand, staying visible in order to maintain and build her various revenue streams, and feeding her own ego—all of it informed by a clear understanding that her sky-high disapproval ratings mean that she cannot win, and that she has too much to lose, financially and otherwise, by running and failing.

There is, however, precious little extant evidence that Palin thinks about the world this way. Which is to say, as other pols do. Which is to say, rationally. Palin operates instead on the basis of a confounding blend of instinct, caprice, and a defiant belief that she can prevail without paying heed to the stale orthodoxies or hoary customs that govern national politics. It is perfectly possible, I suspect, that she in fact saw her bus tour as a dry run for the kind of anarchocampaign that she would wage if she chooses to run—and I have no doubt that she saw the thing as nothing less than a smashing success.

All of which brings us, by way of contrast, back to Bachmann. Unlike Palin’s, her approach to gearing up for a presidential run has been methodical, disciplined, and utterly conventional. She has visited key states, given policy speeches, seen the people you are supposed to see. And she has quietly been staffing up, hiring the sorts of top-flight operatives—most recently, the A-list pollster Ed Goeas, who worked for Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and until recently was lined up to do the same for Haley Barbour—that Washington considers badges of plausibility.

It should go without saying that many people, especially those to the left of Jim DeMint, think that Bachmann is batshit crazy. Her rhetoric condemning President Obama has often veered far into Limbaugh territory; her religious convictions make Mike Huckabee seem a raging secularist; and so on and so forth. Yet the fact is that for a decent-size segment of the Republican electorate, the views that many of us see as outré or worse are far from disqualifying—quite the contrary. Add to this her extraordinary capacity to raise cash (she raked in more in the first quarter than any potential or announced presidential candidate, including Romney), her success in having been reelected two times in a non-nutsy suburban Minnesota congressional district, her composure (most of the time) on TV, and her status as an Iowa native, and you have the makings of perfectly credible candidacy.

The signs that Bachmann will indeed enter the race are quite close to conclusive. Asked recently if she had felt a spiritual calling to run, Bachmann said that she had prayed about it, then added, “I can tell you, yes, I’ve had that calling.” She is slated to appear in the next Republican debate, set for June 13 in New Hampshire. Despite the unfortunate symbolism of launching a campaign in Waterloo, it appears that she will do just that—perhaps as early as this week.

The implications of a Bachmann candidacy will be most dramatic in Iowa, where she is bound to give her fellow Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, fits—and where it’s not inconceivable that she could win the caucuses outright. How great Bachmann’s impact will be beyond that is difficult to gauge at this early stage, and will depend to some extent on whether Palin jumps in as well.

Yet what’s clear is that the havoc that either or both could wreak on the race could be profound, and certainly much greater than many people assume today. In the past, Republican Establishmentarians were able to rest somewhat easy in the knowledge that, although the conviction candidates of the Christian right—a Huckabee, a Pat Robertson, a Pat Buchanan—could be destabilizing, they represented too small a slice of the GOP electorate to upend the process completely. But today the Evangelical bloc has been vaguely conjoined with that of the tea party, creating a larger pair of constituencies that could empower an anti-Establishment candidate who catches fire to do much more damage than before.

Bachmann and/or Palin might, of course, catch too much fire—they might spontaneously combust. But the prospect of their entry into the fray should be causing queasiness for the Establishment big three of Romney, Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman, none of whom has demonstrated even the capacity to generate faint sparks, let alone light a fire in the hearts of the Republican faithful. At his announcement, Romney was asked how he felt about the fact that Palin was in the state, too, just up the road. He replied, almost convicingly, “It’s great—New Hampshire is action central today.” Let’s see if he’s still able to muster that brand of bullshit once either or both of the lady firebrands are in the race beside him.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Tea Party for Two