Michele Bachmann: Evolution Of A 'Cultural Warrior'

May 9, 2011
Originally published on August 24, 2011 6:40 pm

NPR has been profiling some of the Republicans who are considering a presidential run in 2012, to find out what first sparked their interest in politics. Read more of the profiles.

When TV news shows want somebody to enthusiastically rip into President Obama, Michele Bachmann is a reliable choice.

One of her favorite techniques: comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter.

"A second administration of Jimmy Carter wouldn't have done this country any favors," the Minnesota congresswoman said on one of her regular Meet the Press appearances. "We need to make sure we don't have a second Barack Obama administration."

Bachmann knows a thing or two about Jimmy Carter, a secret she revealed last December in Michigan. "The first time I ever went to Washington, D.C., I went to dance at Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball," she said.

"And another secret you need to know? My husband and I met in college — we worked on Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign."

'We Just Called Her A Jesus Freak'

Born in Iowa, Bachmann grew up in Minnesota, where she says "Democrat" gets printed on your birth certificate. The woman who started the House Tea Party caucus was, in fact, raised a Democrat.

Jerome Christenson, the deputy editor of the Winona Daily News in Minnesota, says Bachmann "was really pretty enthusiastic for Jimmy.

"I think at the time," he says, "one of the things that might have attracted her was Carter's Baptist roots."

Christenson was Bachmann's classmate at Winona State University in the '70s. He encouraged her to run for vice president of the student senate — a seat she won.

But even though her party label changed, Christenson says, the Minnesota congresswoman preparing a presidential run today is not too different from the effusive college student he knew 35 years ago.

"Stridently evangelical Christian," he says he'd call her today. But back then, he says, "we just called her a Jesus freak. Generally, the folks that promoted themselves as being Christian were pretty apolitical. They were friends of Jesus, and that was about it."

Christenson describes her as a bridge between students of deep Christian faith and those of political passions.

'A Cultural Warrior'

Bachmann has said she left the Democratic Party after reading a Gore Vidal novel that mocked the founding fathers. Like Bachmann, Mitch Penny, another former classmate, switched parties as he grew older.

"I guess going off to college, you're young and impressionable," says Penny, who is now a police sergeant in Minnesota. "You want to make a mark in the world. And as we've grown older, we've paid more attention to our pocketbooks and [are] trying to decide, are we going to be paying out too much? And if we pay too much, you're not going to have enough for everybody."

Bachmann and her husband both moved over to the Republican Party, volunteering for Reagan in the 1980 campaign. She received her law degree from Oral Roberts University, and another graduate degree from William and Mary Law School. Over the years, the Bachmanns have raised five biological children and have fostered 23 kids.

Between work as an attorney and a mother, Bachmann didn't re-enter politics full time until 2000, when she won a Minnesota state Senate seat.

Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota, has tracked her political career from the beginning. "As a state senator," he says, "Michele Bachmann was primarily a cultural warrior," campaigning outside abortion clinics and vocally fighting against gay marriage.

Six years after she joined the state Senate, Minnesotans sent her to Congress.

"There is a real insurgent element throughout Michele Bachmann's career," Schier says. "She was never a favorite of the legislative leadership when she was a Republican state senator. She was quite willing to engage in highly public crusades about issues. Well, guess what — that's what she's been doing in Washington, as well."

Bachmann's political base loves her style, and it makes institutional Republican leaders cringe.

Her rhetoric is always colorful — and occasionally wrong. The nonpartisan website PolitiFact has evaluated 21 Bachmann statements. None were rated "true" or even "mostly true" — 16 were just false.

An 'Undiluted Social Conservative'

The night of the president's State of the Union address in January, Bachmann gave Republican leaders another headache: She offered her own Tea Party response to the president's speech, just after the official Republican response.

"We believe in lower taxes," she said then. "We believe in a limited view of government and exceptionalism in America."

Bachmann has been an enthusiastic booster of the Tea Party movement. And her style is widely compared to another potential Republican presidential contender, Sarah Palin.

Schier sees one key difference.

"I think Bachmann has identified herself more with social conservatism throughout her career and is, I think, a more undiluted social conservative perhaps even than Sarah Palin."

In short, Bachmann is not bland. The risk of her candidacy is that the same spiciness she uses to fire up the conservative base might burn her when she needs to appeal to a broader audience.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Ari Shapiro tells us what set her on the path to politics, an unlikely campaign 35 years ago.

ARI SHAPIRO: When TV news shows want somebody to enthusiastically rip into President Obama, Michele Bachmann is a reliable choice. Here, she was a guest on "Meet the Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MICHELE BACHMANN: A second administration of Jimmy Carter wouldn't have done this country any favors. We need to make sure we don't have a second Barack Obama administration.

SHAPIRO: Comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter is one of Bachmann's favorite techniques. She recently spoke in Iowa, home to the first presidential contest in the country.

BACHMANN: Now he has us engaged in yet another third Middle Eastern war. And so, I think talk about March Madness, can anyone say Jimmy Carter?

SHAPIRO: She made a similar comparison in the early primary state of South Carolina.

BACHMANN: And he's accomplishing something that nobody thought even possible. He's making Jimmy Carter look like a Rambo tough guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Bachmann knows a thing or two about Jimmy Carter. She revealed her secret last December in Michigan.

BACHMANN: The first time I ever went to Washington, D.C., I went to dance at Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

SHAPIRO: Michele Bachmann was raised a Democrat. She was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota, where she says Democrat gets printed on your birth certificate.

BACHMANN: And another secret you need to know: My president, I met in college, we worked on Jimmy Carter's presidential...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

JEROME CHRISTENSON: Definitely true. She was really pretty enthusiastic for Jimmy.

SHAPIRO: Jerome Christenson is deputy editor of the Winona Daily News in Minnesota.

CHRISTENSON: I think at the time, one of the things that might have attracted her was Carter's Baptist roots.

SHAPIRO: Christenson was Michele Bachmann's classmate at Winona State University in the 1970s. He encouraged her to run for vice president of the student senate. She won the seat.

CHRISTENSON: She was at that time, I remember as being stridently evangelical Christian, is what we apply it to now. Back then, we just called her a Jesus freak. Generally, the folks that promoted themselves as being Christian were pretty apolitical. They were friends of Jesus and that was about it.

SHAPIRO: Mitch Penny was another classmate. He's now a police sergeant in Minnesota. And like Bachmann, Penny switched parties as he grew older.

MITCH PENNY: I guess going off to college, you're young and impressionable. You want to make a mark in the world. And as we've grown older, we've paid more attention to our pocketbooks and trying to decide, are we going to be paying out too much? And if we pay out too much, you're not going to have enough for everybody.

SHAPIRO: Political scientist Steven Schier, of Carleton College, has tracked her political career from the beginning.

STEVEN SCHIER: As a state senator, Michele Bachmann was primarily a cultural warrior.

SHAPIRO: She campaigned outside abortion clinics and vocally fought gay marriage. Six years after she joined the State Senate, Minnesotans elected her to Congress.

SCHIER: There is a real insurgent element throughout Michele Bachmann's career. She was never a favorite of the legislative leadership when she was a Republican state senator. She was quite willing to engage in highly public crusades about issues. Well, guess what? That's what she's been doing in Washington, as well.

SHAPIRO: The night of this year's State of the Union Address, Bachmann gave Republican leaders another headache: She offered her own Tea Party response to the State of the Union, just after the official Republican response.

BACHMANN: I wand to thank the Tea Party Express and Tea Party HD for inviting me to speak this evening. I'm here at their request and not to compete with the official Republican remark.

SHAPIRO: Professor Schier of Carleton sees one key difference.

SCHIER: I think Bachmann has identified herself more with social conservatism throughout her career. And is I think a more undiluted social conservative, perhaps even than Sarah Palin.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.