If you woke up Sunday morning like, “What’s with all these two-headed calves and cats walking backwards?” you probably didn’t hear that Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Republican straw poll. Before you switch your breathing strategy from paper bag to plastic, we’d like to remind you that second place went to Ron Paul. Using the Iowa Republican straw poll to guess who’s going win the general election is like using a Star Wars convention to guess who’s going to win the Miss America pageant; it’s alarming that they picked Chewbacca, but it’s not necessarily predictive. The flat, conservative, pig-manure filled region of the country known as Michele Bachmann’s head is perfect for the Iowans who vote in the pre-caucus GOP event that happens 15 months before the general election, because those people are kind of crazy. Bachmann’s win is a testament less to her broad appeal—we still haven’t measured that, because the instruments always get scared and move to Canada—than to her ability to hew to party orthodoxy. As Thursday’s debate showed, that ability is phenomenal. Why she’s so good at it is difficult to say, but it appears to have something to do with her absolute, eerie certainty on virtually every issue. She’s like Sarah Palin only saying one sentence at a time, and frankly I find that frightening. If you don’t believe me, check out her Meet the Press appearance after the jump.
If you want to freak out quicker, skip to the the 8:00 mark, where the clash of Bachmann’s own ideas really gets going. Props to Miracle Mike Sebba for the link. He got it from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, where Sullivan observes that “you get no sense that she has ever weighed conflicting goals or dealt with differing opinions in marshalling any support.” Bachmann’s is not a nuanced worldview. But it lacks nuance the way oatmeal lacks nuance—it’s not so much rigid as it is a formless space where ideas can’t bump into each other because they have no substance. We’ve run into the limitations of theoretical topology in mapping the inside of Michele Bachmann’s head before, so maybe it’s better to consider a specific example.
Around the aforementioned eight-minute mark, David Gregory—whose job probably sounded fun when he first agreed to do it—tries to get Bachmann to explain why she opposed raising the debt ceiling when pretty much every economist in America said that would be a disaster. He even implies that she might have done so for political reasons, asking whether she would have gone the same way if hers had been the deciding vote. Bachmann’s response, which she returns to later in the interview, is that she introduced a bill that would have “said we wouldn’t default” even if we didn’t raise the debt ceiling.
The details of this bill are a little unclear, and it didn’t pass anyway. What’s worth noting, though, is that it in no way prevents a federal default—it just promises to keep paying military salaries and debt-service fees even after we run out of money, with no specification of where those payments will come from. The PROMISES Act is in many ways the reification of Bachmann’s approach to politics. Like her simultaneous insistences that we must lower corporate tax rates and that the deficit is the biggest problem facing America, it is not so much a plan of action as an articulation of likes and dislikes.
Default bad, higher debt ceiling bad—the thinking person recognizes a conflict of interests here that must be resolved, but the thinking person has made the mistake of thinking in terms of what a United States of America might actually do. From her position as primary advocate of a course of action that everyone around her would assiduously prevent, Bachmann had only to think about what a United States of America would like to hear. Hence her plan to not borrow any more money and keep paying for things, to lower taxes and fix the budget deficit, to be “submissive” to her husband and enjoy a relationship based on mutual respect, and to eat the enormous piece of cake David Gregory promised her at the end of the interview while continuing to gaze at it lovingly.
To paraphrase Stephen Douglas, that shit is totally going to work in the Republican primaries. The GOP is an ideological party right now, and the beauty of ideas is that they don’t require a budget. Sooner or later, though, Bachmann is going to rise to a level of political success where her ideas have to become actual things a person might do. As Tim Pawlenty pointed out in the process of self-immolating on Thursday night, every initiative Bachmann has led in the House—to preserve the debt ceiling, to stop Obamacare, to repeal Dodd-Frank—has failed. She enjoys the luxury of thinking like a person who never has to make any decisions. We should probably therefore be careful about how much we ask for her advice.