Thursday, May 30, 2013

Moving On

Yesterday, the local (and to some extent even national) political scene was focused on the somewhat surprising news that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann would not seek reelection to a fifth term in Minnesota’s Sixth District. As to be expected, reaction to the news was all over the board.

Many Democrats were gleeful that one of their long time bĂȘte noires was no longer going to hold elected office. However, their sense of celebration was tempered to a certain extent by the fact that despite all the energy and resources they threw against her, they were never able to beat her at the ballot box. She left on her own terms.

Meanwhile, the response from Republicans was mixed. Supporters of Bachmann were upset and wondering what the future might hold for a woman who has become a standard bearer in the battle for limited government. Other Republicans, especially those in Minnesota, publicly thanked Michele for her years of service, but privately breathed a sigh of relief. Bachmann’s reelection in the Sixth was far from a sure thing and her reputation (both deserved and undeserved) had damaged the GOP brand statewide. I get the sense that people outside the state have a hard time understanding these sentiments so I’ll try to explain where they come from.

First off, let me join those who have thanked Michele Bachmann for her leadership in the House. People always say that want politicians who remain true to their principles and convictions and that has never been a problem for Michele. You may not have always agreed with her, but you had to admire her willingness to say and do what she thought was right no matter which way the prevailing winds of public opinion were blowing. And when it comes to energy, passion, and enthusiasm few politicians can match Michele.

I can still vividly recall election night 2006. The NARN was doing a live broadcast from the Republican “victory” party at a hotel in Bloomington. The mood was somber as the GOP was getting their tails handed to them nationally and in most local races. Governor Tim Pawlenty was barely hanging on in his reelection battle against Mike Hatch and there appeared to be little to celebrate. And then we interviewed Michele Bachmann. Along with Governor Pawlenty, she too survived the 2006 Democratic wave (in fact she beat Patty Wetterling by eight points) and that evening she was a rare beacon of light and hope. Despite the downbeat news, she was upbeat and excited and you couldn’t help but have your spirits lifted by her infectious enthusiasm. Her boundless energy and authentic sense of optimism will be hard to replace.

(And now for the inevitable “but.”) But for the last few years, I had developed a case of what might be called “Bachmann fatigue.” And I’m sure I’m not the only Minnesota conservative to come down with particular malady. It reminds me of the way I felt for the last few years of the second GW Bush term when it became exhausting to constantly have to defend, explain, or justify actions of the Bush Administration. No matter how much we might have liked Bush at one time or how much we appreciated what he had done to defend the country; many conservatives uttered an audible sigh of relief when he left office.

Likewise, it became harder and harder to defend, explain, or justify some of the things that Michele Bachmann said or did. Now to be fair, no one in recent memory has had her words and actions as often mischaracterized, exaggerated, or distorted as often as Bachmann has. So there were many instances when defending her against her relentless critics was both necessary and justified. But even her most ardent supporters should admit that she also said things that were indefensible and worthy of criticism.

Bachmann’s 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination highlighted the mixed emotions that many conservatives have for her. It showed her at her best and her worst. Given the way it ended for her and the way it was portrayed in the media, most people saw a lot more of the latter. As a result, her image both nationally and in Minnesota was tarnished.

No matter how much support Bachmann had in her district or among national Tea Party groups, the reality was that she was not popular across Minnesota. Again, a good deal of this negativity, especially the “crazy Michele Bachmann” label, was both unfair and inaccurate. But it also wasn’t completely illegitimate and as the old adage goes perception is reality. The perception of Michele Bachmann among Minnesota voters was not positive which is why she was (and is) never going to run and win a statewide race. With Tim Pawlenty’s departure from the stage, Bachmann had become the most prominent Republican in Minnesota and this negative perception of her became a drag on the Minnesota GOP. This is why many Minnesota Republicans were privately pleased to see her retirement announcement yesterday.

I wish Michele Bachmann well whatever the future may hold for her. I think she might have been better off to take this route a bit earlier and step aside after the 2012 primary campaign ended. In any event, I believe her decision is the best thing for her and for Republicans in Minnesota.