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.
Bachmann saved baby-sitting money for three years to buy contact lenses, only to have one of them fly out of her eye on a bike ride. She says the incident gave her a lifelong appreciation for a dollar hard-earned.
Bachmann has also learned how to take a punch and keep going. During her presidential bid, she overcame long shot odds to win the Ames Straw Poll in August 2011. She briefly became a top-tier candidate only to flame out after the vaccine gaffe. By January 2012, she fell to sixth place in the Iowa caucuses and was left with $1 million in campaign debt. She returned to Minnesota, determined to hang on to her House seat, but even with incumbency and a district that is the state’s most conservative, Bachmann nearly lost to a novice Democratic candidate, winning by a scant 4,300 votes. Not long after, news broke of federal and congressional investigations into her campaign.
Bachmann is leaving office under something of a cloud. She and former campaign staffers are still under investigation by a number of entities, including the House Ethics Committee, over alleged campaign-finance violations in her presidential campaign.
The Office of Congressional Ethics last year found “substantial reason to believe” that Bachmann failed to adequately oversee her political committees, that she used her leadership PAC money to subsidize her presidential campaign and used her book tour to promote her presidential campaign — all illegal under House rules or federal campaign laws.
Once she exits Congress, the House Ethics Committee will have no jurisdiction over Bachmann. Many on Capitol Hill suspect that the investigation — at least into Bachmann’s personal handling of her campaign finances — will then cease.
Bachmann insists that even if it continued, no wrongdoing would be found.
“Everything we have done in regard to this is to make sure we are fully cooperative, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that when this is completed I will be completely exonerated,” she said. “I’m not worried about it because I haven’t done anything to hold me in a position of responsibility.”
At a tribute dinner held in her district last month, Bachmann delivered her own keynote address.
“One of the greatest gifts that God can give to any human being is suffering and hard times,” she told the friendly crowd in Monticello. “It’s given to us for our benefit. It’s given to us to teach us ... to make us better. And also to take our eyeballs and turn our eyeballs outward rather than inward.”
Bachmann is still bringing in money for her MichelePAC. So far, records show the largest recipient of funds is a law firm defending one of her former campaign staffers. Federal documents posted April 20 show that MichelePAC had raised $353,100 and disbursed $12,500 to Republican candidates, according to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.org.
The announcement last spring that Bachmann would not seek a fifth term in Congress came about the same time her lawyers were fine-tuning a settlement agreement over a lawsuit alleging that senior members of her presidential campaign stole an e-mail list of home-school families from the computer of an Iowa campaign staffer.
She says her decision to retire from office had nothing to do with controversies surrounding her presidential campaign.
“Some people, after one term, it’s enough,” she said. “Other people, 22 terms aren’t enough and they want to keep staying here. I felt like I redeemed the time … I know I did. I gave the constituents in my district, whom I love ... I gave them absolutely everything I had. I served them very well. I was very honest with them. I did exactly what I said I would.”
A legislative high point for Bachmann came in 2012, when she teamed up with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to push through funding to complete the long-delayed St. Croix bridge. In addition to the bridge bill, a measure by Bachmann granting social workers greater access to foster care educational records was signed into law by Obama.
Asked about her other achievements, Bachmann mentions being named in 2011 to TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes’ 100 most powerful woman.
It is a list of achievements her detractors say is stunningly small, given her national profile and eight years in Congress — much of that serving with the majority party.
Dan Hofrenning, a political scientist from St. Olaf College who has observed Bachmann’s career, said her firebrand approach to politics has made her increasingly less electable — and perhaps less effective, even among GOP leaders.
“She declined to run again in one of the most strongly Republican districts in the country,” Hofrenning said. “I think she does represent an important pocket of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, but her legacy is not one of electoral success. … I think her type of politics are not majority politics. They’re not going to lead the Tea Party or the Republican Party to electoral success.”
Former Sixth District GOP Chair Jen Niska, who calls Bachmann a friend, defended her tenure. Niska said that Bachmann “led our district really well. ... She was a good voice for us.” Above all, Niska said, “any time she was with constituents, she listened.”
When she talked, particularly on foreign policy, Bachmann favored rhetorical bombshells that often backfired. She was roundly condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike in 2012 for accusing Huma Abedin, a well-respected Hillary Clinton aide, of having family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Bachmann said was trying to “destroy” western civilization. That same year, Bachmann said Obama was “waving a tar baby in the air” on oil policy. Last year, along with two other lawmakers, she held a news conference on Egyptian television praising the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
H. Wayne House, a professor of theology, law and culture at the Faith Evangelical College & Seminary in Washington state, has been friends with Bachmann since law school. He said he appreciates her authenticity.
“She is really convinced of what she says, and whether you like what she says or you don’t like what she says, I think you have to appreciate the fact that she has sincere convictions,” House said. “Michele can do a lot of things. Obviously she could be in another political office and that’s her choice. … Or she could be in a position of just a speaker or a lecturer, a teacher. Who knows what Michele will do?”
To the college students in Lynchburg, Bachmann hewed to a safer message, bemoaning Israel’s growing isolation in the world and Iran’s putative nuclear capacity. She said she was ready to “pass the baton,” saying there are many student interns in her Washington office with grand aspirations.
“A lot of the kids come in and tell me, I want to be president someday. I want to be governor someday. I want to be senator someday. I want to be a congressman someday,” Bachmann said, in closing. “And I tell them that’s great, that’s wonderful, I’m so excited. Get ready to serve. And get ready for suffering.”