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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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle