I'd like to ask you to do something strange, maybe even a little shocking: take Michele Bachmann seriously. If you're like most people, chances are you know Bachmann only as that crazy Tea Party congresswoman who told Chris Matthews, "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?", the one who delivered her own response to the State of the Union, in which she looked into the wrong camera for seven minutes. But she is running for president, and she's not kidding around.
Don't get me wrong -- Bachmann is neither a serious legislator nor a serious thinker. Her ideas are radical nearly to the point of being nuts, and the thought of her in the Oval Office is, well, unsettling. As a representative of the extreme right, she'd have almost no chance of beating Barack Obama in a general election. But the other candidates in the race could well find her to be more formidable than they expect.
Bachmann hasn't made it official yet, but her entry into the race looks almost certain, at which point she'll be the 10th Republican candidate in the race. For the record, the others are Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Buddy Roemer, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson -- the usual combination of panderers, extremists, and cranks, along with a couple of people one could actually imagine wielding power. One name not on that list is Sarah Palin, who despite her "I hate you -- pay attention to me!" routine with the media, will probably not be making a bid, at least not this year and maybe not ever. (The New Republic's Jonathan Chait may have decoded Palin's actions: She's a "secular televangelist," pursuing not office but renown and riches.)
But Bachmann can't escape the comparisons with Palin, something that demonstrates how female candidates still get treated by different rules than male candidates. Pundits rarely mention Bachmann's candidacy without noting that she and Palin are awfully similar, one supposes because they're both conservative women with dark hair (although it's true that for some reason, Palin also sounds like she's from Minnesota). We get plenty of stories like this one ("Palin and Bachmann Size Each Other Up") and this one ("Conservative Women Enthusiastic About Bachmann, Palin"), making it seem as though one woman running would cancel out the other's potential candidacy. Needless to say, this isn't something male candidates have to deal with. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are both handsome Mormon former governors with Utah roots and a troubling history of reasonable policy stances, but no one is asking Huntsman whether it's worth running when Mitt Romney is already in the race. Likewise, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are both libertarians with no chance of winning -- although Paul's hair is gray while Johnson's is brown, so that does mean they're not as interchangeable.
Why do I say we should take Bachmann seriously? If all you knew about her was the Saturday Night Live caricature, you might think she was just an incompetent airhead. But Bachmann does some important things very well. She may not be all that eloquent, but she is extremely articulate -- she can get up and without notes give a seamless extemporaneous speech that tickles every conservative tender spot, with anti-government bromides, shots at European social democracy, and shout-outs to the Declaration of Independence (that's the one that mentions a Creator, don'cha know). But what could be delivered with a sneer comes instead with a smile -- Bachmann displays none of the petulance that characterizes so many of Palin's public utterances. Where Palin would be the candidate of resentment and revanchism, Bachmann can put a happy, optimistic face on Tea Party anger. And she'll never need to write her talking points on her hand.
It's true that Bachmann's hard-right ideology and her immersion in the Tea Party's particular blend of tics and peeves narrow her appeal to those already on the right. But she can work that wing like few others. In her 2010 race to represent Minnesota's 6th District, Bachmann raised an astonishing $13.6 million -- more than any House candidate in the country, and 8.5 times as much as the average incumbent running for re-election. She'll need much more than that to run a national campaign, of course, but her appeal to small donors and her ability to exploit the media could produce a steady stream of small-dollar contributions. Cable producers know that if they put Bachmann on, she's sure to say something provocative or inflammatory, so she can have all the bookings she likes.
Bachmann is no policy genius, but she knows how to read a crowd, and she understands the conservative voters all the candidates are trying desperately to woo. At last week's Faith and Freedom conference in Washington, all the candidates who appeared did their best to preach to the choir, but only Bachmann ended her speech by leading the attendees in prayer. Don't be surprised if she generates the biggest response when the candidates meet for their first big debate on June 13 in New Hampshire.
There's a good chance that the GOP primaries will end up coming down to a contest between an establishment figure like Romney or Pawlenty and someone who represents the conservative Tea Party base. It often happens in primaries that all the candidates except two fall away; the press' eagerness to reduce the cacophony of a 10-candidate race to the narrative clarity of a battle between two combatants helps the winnowing process. If that should happen, there may be no one better positioned to represent the conservative base than Bachmann. What the base yearns for is ideological purity, particularly when nearly all the establishment candidates -- Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Huntsman -- have at one time or another supported things like health-insurance mandates, a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, or economic stimulus. They're all now trying to atone for their sins, but Bachmann has no such heresies to apologize for. When she talks to conservatives, they don't doubt that she's one of them.
So despite her well-earned reputation as an extremist, Michele Bachmann could go farther in the race than many of the candidates who now seem more "serious." It won't make the campaign any more reasoned or thoughtful. But it might make it a little more interesting.