God and gays: the rise of Michele Bachmann

"Late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy" she may be, but Michele Bachmann could be the next President, says <e

For now Michele Bachmann is the main show in the race for the Republican candidacy. Bachmann is the only fascinating candidate in a field that is otherwise populated by dreary, white Mormon guys (and Herman Cain). Matt Taibbi has penned an astonishing 5,000 word profile of the Congresswoman from Minnesota in this month's Rolling Stone.

In a profile stuffed full of potentially libellous comments -- at one point Taibbi accuses Bachmann of "pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying" -- a bizarre portrait of Bachmann's rise to fame and relative power emerges.

A few highlights include:

The moment when she hides behind a bush during a gay rights rally in 2005:

A photo shows Bachmann, only the top of her Stepford head visible, crouched alone in an extreme catcher's squat behind the Capitol shrubbery. She later insisted she wasn't hiding at all, but resting because her heels hurt.

The moment when Bachmann claims that she was attacked by two lesbains in a toilert.

Depending on whom you believe -- and by that I mean which of Bachmann's own competing versions of the story you believe -- Bachmann either left the meeting to avoid the activists, or excused herself to "use the restroom" only to be "held against her will" there by what may or may not have been a pair of angry lesbians. She reported the incident to the Washington County sheriff: "Sen. Bachman [sic] stated that when she was trying to leave, 2 women blocked her in and told her they wanted to continue talking. Sen. Bachman stated she was afraid and screamed for help. The 2 women let her leave the restroom when she screamed."

Taibbi makes the case - as do I - that Bachmann is a potentially strong candidate, despite her frankly bizarre career so far. Ezra Klein described Bachmann as the candidate Sarah Palin was "supposed to be", and Taibbi agrees, sort of:

Here's the difference between Bachmann and Palin: While Palin is clearly bored by the dreary, laborious aspects of campaigning and seems far more interested in gobbling up the ancillary benefits of reality-show celebrity, Bachmann is ruthlessly goal-oriented, a relentless worker who has the attention span to stay on message at all times. With a little imagination, you can even see a clear path for her to the nomination.

Indeed, he continues, Bachmann has incredible strengths as a politician:

The public has become acquainted with some of Bachmann's other excellent qualities as a politician -- her TV-ready looks, her easy confidence in public speaking, her quick command of a mountainous database of (frequently bogus) facts -- but often overlooked is her greatest quality, the gigantic set of burnished titanium Terminator-testicles swinging under her skirt.

According to Taibbi, then, Bachmann is a lying, gay-obssessed, Bible-nut who has rose to power thanks to chutzpah and a pair of over-sized testicles. She could also easily be the next Republican candidate for President.

Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy -- crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Read it. It's long, but it's brilliant.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.