Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
Yesterday Michele Bachmann—the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who has been called “controversial,” among other adjectives—announced that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term in the House of Representatives. She was potentially facing an ethics investigation into her campaign's spending in the last election cycle, and she only won by a couple percentage points last time, so it’s not surprising she ducked out when she did—she’s basically quitting before she can get fired.
Bachmann being Bachmann, she didn’t frame it that way. In an eight-minute video on her website, the only concrete reason she gave for leaving her post was, “Eight years is also long enough for an individual to serve as a representative for a specific congressional district.” She went on:
I fully anticipate the mainstream liberal media to put a detrimental spin on my decision not to seek a fifth term. Since I was first elected to Congress many years ago, they always seem to attempt to find a dishonest way to disparage me. But I take being the focus of their attention and disparagement as a true compliment of my public service effectiveness.
About that “public service effectiveness”—in her role as a legislator, she did essentially nothing. Of the 58 bills she sponsored in her six years (and counting) in the House, exactly one passed and got sent to the Senate, and that was one of the many bills with the goal of repealing Obamacare that have no chance of becoming law.
Bachmann’s role in the political ecosystem has nothing to do with laws, though, and hardly anything to do with policy. Her job is to be crazy, and she’s amazingly good at it.
A lot of political blogs are using her announcement to look back at all of her “gaffes,” which range from slips of the tongue to factual errors that came out of her mouth because she believed them (the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, she said once) to genuinely scary positions she holds (she wanted the media to look into which Democratic politicians were “anti-America” at one point). Despite constantly coming under fire for saying things that were strange or simply untrue, Bachmann kept coming back for more—in 2011, she was on more Sunday news shows than any other politician, which indicates just how central to the “national conversation” (or national shouting match) she was. In a look back at her time in the House, a blogger for the right-wing website RedState called her both a “target” of criticism and a “standard bearer of push back on Obamacare.” That anonymous conservative also praised her for “be[ing] disruptive, resist[ing] compromise, and push[ing] the envelope of what we’re told is civility.”
This meant that she pissed off a lot of Democrats, who as Ana Marie Cox of the Guardian points out, used her craziness as a fundraising device, frequently highlighting her prominence in the GOP as a way to scare supporters into becoming donors. Meanwhile, Bachmann used her fame to raise a ton of money herself. Just as Democrats could rally around their hatred of her, Republicans could rally around their hatred of her attackers. “The liberal media has had a field day mocking her career” is how Jeffrey Meyer of the conservative outlet NewsBusters put it in a blog post. Meyer dismisses the allegations that Bachmann says untrue stuff all the time as “liberally skewed,” but doesn’t bother to prove that some of her lies and misstatements were actually correct. His point is that the mainstream media is biased and unfairly targeting conservatives like Bachmann—the response to her words is more important than the words themselves. Similarly, for liberals individual incidents of Bachmann either getting her facts wrong or expressing strongly conservative viewpoints aren’t important—what matters is that she’s crazy and indicates just how crazy all Republicans are.
No matter which side of the aisle you hail from, chances are you look at Bachmann, see an alarming agenda (emanating from either her or the opposition she riles up), and donate money and time to whichever side you’re inclined to support. Controversial figures like Bachmann produce endless fodder for partisan blogs who can argue about the things they say; they also serve as convenient political shorthand—“Bachmann” means “Tea Party” which means “crazy” to liberals and “principled” to conservatives. It almost doesn’t matter what she actually says. Her ties to fringe fundamentalist-Christian movements, documented by the New Yorker two years ago, would be concerning if she were involved in passing laws or setting policy, but she never was. She’s just an extraordinarily potent symbol.
She'll be a less potent symbol once she's out of office and working for Fox News or a conservative think tank, so places like Salon and the Daily Beast are wondering who the “next Bachmann” will be. The Daily Beast phrases it as a joke, a look at the “top contenders for the Crazytown crown.” But truthfully, someone needs to go on television, evangelize for conservative beliefs in the most ham-fisted, aggressive, impolite way possible, get attacked for those beliefs, and inspire attacks on the attackers in turn. For the sake of reporters, bloggers, fundraising operations, and the readers of political news who love being outraged about something, the wheel of controversy has to keep turning. Michele Bachmann made a terrific hamster running inside that wheel, but now we have to find a new one.
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