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The Michele Bachmann Reader: Mehdi Hasan reviews

A short selection of recent articles on the Republican presidential wannabe and Tea Party darling.

In today's Sunday Times (£), there is a profile of the Minnesota congresswoman and wannabe Republican presidential candiate, Michele Bachman, who is fast emerging as one of the rising stars of the GOP.

According to the Sunday Times:

Few American presidential campaigns would be complete without the slapstick banana-skin pratfall. Now that Sarah Palin, the prime Republican exponent of the art, is in the wings inspecting her bruises, the Tea Party's latest poster girl has obligingly stepped in. Perversely, Michele Bachmann's gaffe-strewn performances are giving her the last laugh.

...[A] cavalier disregard for historical accuracy prompted a fact-checking agency to examine 24 of Bachmann's statements, some relating to her personal finances. Only one was found to be completely true and 17 were rated false (of which seven were categorised as "pants-on-fire" untrue).

This record of a politician who claims to have lived by Christian principles ever since she "surrendered my life over to Christ" at the age of 16 might have spelt her Waterloo. On the contrary, her popularity ratings have leapt by eight points in New Hampshire, where she is in second place behind Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the Republican frontrunner. Her name recognition has jumped 17 points to 69 per cent in the latest Gallup poll, ranking her fifth behind Palin, Newt Gingrich, Romney and Ron Paul.

 

But the Sunday Times says the views of Bachmann's husband could prove to be her downfall:

Marcus Bachmann, her spouse of 32 years, is her main political adviser and a clinical therapist who runs a Christian counselling clinic in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, that tries to turn homosexuals "straight". He told a Christian radio station last year: "Barbarians need to be educated. They need to be disciplined and just because someone feels this or thinks this doesn't mean that we're supposed to go down that road." At the Minnesota pastors summit in 2005 he gave a presentation featuring several people who said they had been "cured" of being gay. His views are shared by his wife.

The FT has its own profile of Bachmann, penned by the paper's Washington correspondent, Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

In a field of uninspiring Republican contenders, Bachmann is the dark horse. Many believe she has the political skill to challenge former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner and a man whose polished veneer makes him appear both presidential and - to his critics - totally inauthentic. A recent poll shows Bachmann trailing him by just one percentage point in Iowa.

Such a meteoric rise might seem like a one-off in a year with a shallow talent pool. In fact, Bachmann's career reflects something bigger: the steady shift to the right in Republican politics that has found new intensity with the emergence of the Tea Party. For Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson, it is Bachmann's uncompromising conservatism, the very trait that may spoil her chances with mainstream voters, which will lead her to victory. "It took a Jimmy Carter for us to get a Ronald Reagan, so it may very well take a Barack Obama for us to get a Michele Bachmann," he says.

Then there is John Cassidy's New Yorker piece:

. . . Obama's campaign managers should be trying to build her up, on the grounds that she is unelectable. However, it seems that David Axelrod and the rest of the boys in Chicago, where the Obama 2012 campaign is based, are in the dissident camp. Evidently, they believe Bachmann needs taking down before she gains more momentum.

Why is that? My guess is that, having themselves swept from nowhere to the White House on a wave of public disgust at the Bush Administration, the Obama strategists recognize a potentially dangerous rival. On the face of it, Bachmann is a classic right-wing protest candidate. But in centering her announcement speech on a critique of President Obama's economic record, and stating baldly that he can be beaten, she was signalling that she intends to be more than that.

To be sure, much of what she says about the economy and many other subjects doesn't add up. For now, that doesn't matter much. In courting the grass roots of the Republican Party, she inhabits an alternative universe to the one where many of her critics live: Bible-bashing, Fox News-watching white America, a land where all too many eagerly accept the notion that East Coast élites are busy selling hard-working Americans down the drain for the price of a Wall Street campaign contribution or a hat-tip from George Clooney.

Meanwhile, the inimitable Matt Taibbi is scathing in his must-read Rolling Stone profile of the controversial congresswoman:

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and, as you consider the career and future presidential prospects of an incredible American phenomenon named Michele Bachmann, do one more thing. Don't laugh.

. . . Don't do it. And don't look her in the eyes; don't let her smile at you. Michele Bachmann, when she turns her head toward the cameras and brandishes her pearls and her ageless, unblemished neckline and her perfect suburban orthodontics in an attempt to reassure the unbeliever of her non-threateningness, is one of the scariest sights in the entire American cultural tableau. She's trying to look like June Cleaver, but she actually looks like the T2 skeleton posing for a passport photo. You will want to laugh, but don't, because the secret of Bachmann's success is that every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger.

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And 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.

And Britain's Matthew Norman has had a crack at Bachmann too, in the Independent:

Lovers of sledgehammer irony, stand by for a doozy. Patience is required, while the odds are both fairly long and mortifyingly short, depending on the closeness of one's acquaintance with sanity. For all that, there is a quantifiable chance -- about one in 20 on Betfair -- that we will awake on November 7, 2012, to the news that Michele Bachmann is to be the 45th president of the United States.

If so -- here's that irony -- the person to thank for the election of a sensationally ignorant, anti-gay rights zealot will be not Rush Limbaugh or Rupert Murdoch. It will be that venerable grand dame of out-and-proud homosexuality, that paragon of cultured liberalism and intellectual hauteur, Gore Vidal.

It was while reading a novel of his that the Minnesota congresswoman, then a liberal and erstwhile Jimmy Carter campaign volunteer, swapped sides.

. . . At this point, convention demands the disclaimer that stranger political things have happened. But unless I slept through Lembit Opik's appointment as high chancellor of a federated Europe, or Eric Pickles shaving 0.02 seconds off Usain Bolt's 100m world record, they haven't.

However wretched the US economy, however stubbornly unemployment hovers close to 10pc, however self-destructive America's mood as it rages against the dying of the imperial light, Michele Bachmann is surely a lurch along the politico-comic interface too far.

Common sense insists that Mr Vidal will never come closer to deciding the presidency than any influence he exerted over his cousin Al Gore. Then again, what role has common sense played in her rise so far? All we know for sure is that her name's Michele Bachmann, that she's running for president, and that watching her do so will be as much fun as anyone has a right to expect within the law.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network