Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) surprised the country by announcing Wednesday that she won’t seek re-election, releasing a gauzily-lit, 9-minute video with a soft rock soundtrack to explain her decision.
It was a bizarre video from a bizarre politician, who once fleetingly appeared to be on a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann released it while traveling in Russia as part of a congressional delegation, saying her departure will give Republicans time to recruit a replacement.
The Tea Party darling once commanded attention with outlandish claims that energized the Republican base. But the mother of five and foster mother of 23 often confirmed the worst stereotypes that Democrats have of conservatives.
Bachmann, 57, briefly shook up the political world by winning the 2011 Iowa GOP presidential straw poll, but it has all been downhill since then. She dropped out of the presidential primary campaign in January 2012 after finishing sixth place in the Iowa caucuses. She barely won reelection last fall for a fourth term, only to return to Capitol Hill and face a federal investigation for presidential campaign irregularities.
Bachmann insisted in a video to supporters that none of this – her narrow victory last year over her Democratic challenger Jim Graves in Minnesota’s 6th District, nor the federal probe – had any bearing on her departure.
“Eight years is also long enough for an individual to serve as a representative for a specific congressional district,” Bachmann said to the strum of an unseen electric guitar. “Be assured, my decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being re-elected to Congress.”
She claimed she would continue her fight for conservative ideals to prevent a future that “our founders would hardly even recognize.”
But the explanation for her departure rang hollow, and was quickly discounted by many political analysts. A one-time Democrat who forged her political philosophy in the anti-abortion, religious-right wing of the GOP, Bachmann was impatient to make a name for herself after first arriving in Congress in January 2007 – even when her views at times were half-baked. She declared her candidacy for president without having sponsored a single bill or resolution that became law, or participating in the governance process as a committee chairwoman.
Her flameout may provide a cautionary tale for other Tea Party favorites who aspire to succeed Bachmann as the public face of conservatism, most notably freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is already fending off speculation about his 2016 presidential chances.
Within months of arriving in the Senate, Cruz has captured the limelight with his hard-line conservative views on spending, immigration reform, gun control and national security. His similarities with Bachmann are striking: Both were catapulted to positions of influence and prominence as part of the Tea Party wave. Both are unabashed iconoclasts willing to challenge more established leaders in their own party. And both play fast and loose with facts.
Shortly after his debut on Capitol Hill early this year, Cruz insinuated that President Obama’s choice for Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, might have been on the payroll of the North Koreans. He also wrote in Politico that “Hagel’s nomination has been publicly celebrated by the Iranian government.”
He later turned his sights on fellow Republicans. On immigration, he has described as amnesty the compromise that Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and three other Republicans negotiated with Democrats. Cruz said such a plan would make “a chump” of legal immigrants. On guns, he said the background checks Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) negotiated in a bipartisan compromise would lead to a national gun registry – an outcome that the star-crossed proposal explicitly prohibited.
Just last week, McCain argued on the Senate floor in favor of appointing conferees to try to iron out differences between the Senate and House-passed versions of the fiscal 2014 budget, but Cruz lashed out against that – declaring that neither Democratic or Republican leaders could be trusted not to raise the debt ceiling or taxes.
Bachmann’s arrival in the House as a freshman wasn’t quite as dramatic, but she wasted little time in questioning Republican President George W. Bush’s decision to boost U.S. troop levels in Iraq and quickly became one of the fiercest critics of Barack Obama during his first presidential run.
During an October 17, 2008, interview on MSNBC, she criticized Obama for his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Vietnam War-era activist Bill Ayers, saying, “Usually we associate with people who have similar ideas to us, and it seems that it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs, and values, and thoughts are... I am very concerned that he [Obama] may have anti-American views."
As she gained prominence, Bachmann’s public pronouncements – her claims of jihadist conspiracies, denial of climate change, and disregard for the debt ceiling – became increasingly dubious in a way that both elevated her stature and undercut her credibility. Here are five of her most memorable utterances that any of her successors might wish to avoid:
1. Vaccine Whopper
During a 2011 Republican presidential debate, Bachmann railed against Texas Gov. Rick Perry for mandating that young girls get the human papillomavirus (HPV vaccine). After the debate ended, she formed a fundraising effort around a story about a woman coming up to her after the debate, saying her daughter was given the vaccine and then suffered from mental retardation as a result. Experts immediately debunked her claim, saying the vaccine couldn’t possibly cause such effects.
2. Swine Flu “Coincidence”
In April 2009, Bachmann told MSNBC she found it an “interesting coincidence” that there have only been swine flu outbreaks under Democratic presidents. “I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.” Of course, a second’s worth of research shows that Republican Gerald Ford was president during the 70s swine flu crisis.
3. Praising Founding Fathers for Ending Slavery
While on the campaign trail during her brief presidential run, Bachmann played historian, telling an audience that “the very founders that wrote [the Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” Never mind that several of the founding fathers famously owned slaves, enshrining a compromise in which slaves counted as three-fifths of a human being when allocating congressional seats.
4. Census Forms and Internment
In 2009 Bachmann advised her constituents not to fill out Census Bureau forms because President Obama could use the information to “to round them up, in violation of their constitutional rights,” potentially throwing them in “internment camps.”
5. Obamacare “Will Literally Kill Children”
Bachmann has been one of the most vocal opponents of Obama’s signature health insurance law, and her strategy has mostly included scaring her constituents with false claims about the new law. Just last week, as the House attempted to repeal the law for the 37th time, Bachmann said, “Let’s repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.” No credible analysis has suggested that the expansion of health coverage will lead directly to the death of anyone.
The Fiscal Times’ Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.