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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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.