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Tea Party for Two

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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.


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