Is Michele Bachmann the savior of the GOP?
TNR's Jonathan Chait has been providing some of the smartest commentary I've read anywhere on the 2012 Republican presidential race -- and his post yesterday on Michele Bachmann's opportunity was no exception.
As I do, Chait sees Tim Pawlenty as "he only candidate acceptable both to party elites and to grassroots activists," and therefore as a possible "default" winner of the nomination. (I would just note that, to me, Pawlenty is looking more and more hopeless.) Mitt Romney may be the presumptive frontrunner, but there's just no way the party's rabid right-wing base will allow him to be chosen. (Is there?) And given how weak the hardcore conservatives in the field are (Rick Santorum, Herman Cain), Pawlenty may be able to secure enough conservative support to emerge as the alternative either to Romney or to some other "moderate" (in relative Republican terms), like Rudy Giuliani or Jon Huntsman.
But while Pawlenty is trying hard to portray himself as a bona fide conservative, there are just too many holes in his record, not to mention the fact that he's just not that engaging a figure. Which leaves the door open for a genuine right-wing ideologue to step in and secure the conservative vote. Sarah Palin could be that person, but she's highly unlikely to run and in any event doesn't have nearly the support she used to. Paul Ryan is a possibility, but his budget plan, however much Republicans are circling the wagons to defend it as party orthodoxy, is toxic with the general public. I suspect he won't run. There are others, like Jim DeMint, but as Chait points out the one figure who could actually pull it off is none other than Michele Bachmann:
The candidate best positioned to win this constituency is Michelle Bachmann, who I've also been touting as a dark horse. She's been honing her pitch before Tea Party rallies for two years, building a national constituency and a fund-raising base. A Sarah Palin candidacy would probably siphon off too much of her base, but Palin doesn't seem to be preparing to run. And if Palin doesn't run, and an outsider like Paul Ryan doesn't run, then you're looking at a field overloaded with candidates catering to the small pragmatic wing and nearly devoid of candidates catering to the Tea Party base.
[W]hile Bachmann may be even crazier than Palin on questions of public policy, she seems to manage to hold things together as a candidate. She can answer questions from the news media. She is putting together a professional campaign rather than relying on amateur advisors. She takes care to point out frequently that she is a former tax lawyer, and she does not engage in Palin's visceral anti-intellectualism, giving herself the aura of a plausible president, at least in the minds of Republican voters. Bachmann may well combine Palin's most powerful traits without her crippling organizational failures.
It's worth keeping in mind that the 2010 election cycle featured a long series of conservative upstarts shocking the mainstream media by knocking off establishment-approved candidates in nominating contests. Obviously, the nominating contest is a series of state-level nominating primaries generally dominated by an activist base. Right now, the right wing of the party nominating field is a vacuum. Somebody is going to fill that vacuum.
Republicans are desperate to fill it, which is why so many names are being thrown around as possible saviors. But a lot of big names are going to sit this one out, not least because Obama looks formidable, but also because they don't want to have to play to the Tea Party right and its various litmus tests. And so it would take someone who is delusional enough to think that he or she could win, or someone who is so convinced of his or her own righteousness that he or she puts principle before performance, or both. And yet also someone with some serious political skills and the talent to advance the sort of right-wing agenda that excites the base.