As she nears the end of four terms representing Minnesota’s Sixth District, she has been working hard to rehabilitate her political image so she can remain a voice on the national stage.
LYNCHBURG, Va.-- Michele Bachmann, one-time GOP presidential contender and still one of Minnesota’s most polarizing politicians, was on stage in front of 10,000 college students taking a stab at her next life chapter: Staying relevant.
The 35-minute foreign policy speech Bachmann delivered at Liberty University one recent sunny morning was her 59th speaking engagement in 16 months. She plunged into so much detail — twice mentioning that Iran has 19,000 centrifuges — that near the end, some students at a university known for its political activism slumped in their bleacher seats, fidgeting with their phones.
“What does this have to do with you?” Bachmann said, blinking at the audience, perhaps sensing their restlessness. “A nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran … could completely change your world.”
As she nears the end of four tumultuous terms representing Minnesota’s Sixth District in Congress and nearly 15 years in political life, Bachmann has been working hard to rehabilitate her political image so she can remain a voice on the national stage. She wants to be perceived as an unapologetic thought leader in a secular wilderness — not a footnote whose career includes a number of high-profile gaffes and an ethics and criminal probe into her campaign finances.
At 58, Bachmann is attempting to cast herself as more Margaret Thatcher, less Sarah Palin. That could be a tough transition. Bachmann first gained national notoriety when she suggested that newly elected President Obama held “anti-American views.” She often made accusations without proof, saying after one presidential debate that the vaccine for human papilloma virus caused mental retardation. Her legislative accomplishments have been thin. In four terms, she has gotten only three of her bills to a president’s desk.
Last week, Bachmann was back in the news for lashing out against a bipartisan bill to establish a National Women’s History Museum on the National Mall. The museum, she said in House floor speech, would “enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and pro-traditional marriage movement.” The museum, she warned, could become “an ideological shrine to abortion.”
In part because of such rhetorical blasts, Bachmann has become a household name, and against the odds has built her brand into a force within the GOP that enabled her presidential run. She founded the Tea Party Caucus in the House, was among the first conservatives to spearhead major protests on Obama’s health care plan and at one point became a fixture on national political talk shows.
But lately, in addition to the occasional outburst, Bachmann also schedules time weekly to study foreign affairs. She has taken advantage of government-sponsored travel — a perk of serving on the House Intelligence Committee — to visit distant parts of the world and master the names of foreign leaders. This year, she addressed the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society at England’s Oxford University.
“I think I have an extremely important voice,” the congresswoman said in an interview. “I’ll be speaking, I’ll be writing. I’ll be involved in some public policy organizations and then also, probably, my voice will be part of the national media as well. I’m looking forward to just continuing to bring a very strong, independent-minded voice.”
Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who heads the political group American Action Network, said Bachmann will not “slip quietly into the night.” Bachmann, he predicted, “is going to be a voice, she’s going to be out there. I presume she will have lots of opportunities.”
Bachmann’s critics are dubious about whether she can fashion a post-congressional role for herself in the crowded landscape of conservative pundits.
“She has a lot to offer if she wants to reach outside of her own self interests,” said John Gilmore, a St. Paul attorney and conservative blogger who co-authored a critical e-book called “Bachmannistan.”
“That’s always been the case with Michele Bachmann, but I’ve never seen her do it,” Gilmore added.
Life after Congress
Retiring members of Congress typically walk three or four well-worn paths to a less public life. They can lead a think tank, migrate to the private sector, while giving occasional speeches, or they can move to the money side of politics, with a job in lobbying or government relations.
Coleman has carved out his own second life after losing to Sen. Al Franken in 2008 and now is a law firm partner who also raises money for GOP candidates nationally through his political action committee.
“You don’t always have it all planned out,” Coleman said. “A lot of my colleagues going out don’t have it all planned. … Some of the advice is don’t rush into things too quick.”
As she travels the country, Bachmann often talks about the power of misery, survival and redemption. Her oft-told story of rising to presidential contender from humble beginnings is part Oliver Twist, part Horatio Alger. Her dad left, her parents divorced. She and her three brothers packed into an apartment with their mother, where they had to sell all the wedding gifts and furniture. Bachmann tells audiences that while her mother qualified for public assistance, she refused to take it. Instead, everyone got paper routes and other jobs.