Palin, Bachmann Comparisons Are Unavoidable

Originally published on August 24, 2011 10:42 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Of course the biggest winner in Iowa's straw poll is someone who's hardly under the radar - Michele Bachmann. The congresswoman from Minnesota is getting plenty of attention and the unavoidable comparisons to the reigning Republican female star - Sarah Palin, who's not even in the race.

For a take on how their political styles compare, we turned to conservative columnist, Reihan Salam. He blogs about politics for the National Review online.

Good morning.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM ( Good morning.

MONTAGNE: The comparison to Sarah Palin may be simplistic, but, as I say, inevitable. They're both charismatic, mediagenic, outsized personalities and star power. Do you buy, though, the comparison between the two of them?

Mr. SALAM: I absolutely buy it, in part because I think that they speak to a very similar constituency. And that's what we might call a downscale conservative constituency, as opposed to the upscale constituency that a candidate like Mitt Romney speaks to.

MONTAGNE: Downscale meaning?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that, you know, downscale is absolutely not a pejorative. It's a sensibility. And it basically refers to voters who feel as though they're economically insecure. These are voters who have a very strong anti-establishment streak, and they're oftentimes voters who have very strong religious convictions. That's a big of their political identity that they bring with them into Republican Party politics.

MONTAGNE: When it comes to the two women of this part of conservatism, what are the differences between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann?

Mr. SALAM: One of the differences is that Sarah Palin, before she was John McCain's running mate, was someone who distinguished herself as kind of an anti-ideological political figure in Alaska. One of her major accomplishments as governor was passing a windfall profits tax on oil companies, whereas Michele Bachmann is someone who has very strongly identified with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. She challenged a more moderate Republican very early on in her engagement in Minnesota politics.

And I actually think that they're very different, rhetorically. For example, Michele Bachmann has really distinguished herself in the presidential debates we've had so far by being very articulate, very sharp, and also very quick on her feet. And those are not qualities that people associated with Sarah Palin when she was in a kind of confrontational political situation when she was being interviewed. She was someone who would often stumble.

Now, I don't think that necessarily speaks to Sarah Palin's expertise or anything else, but I think that Michele Bachmann is, for whatever reason, a much more confident performer in a situation where she's under intense scrutiny.

MONTAGNE: Do you think that Michele Bachmann has taken some lessons from Sarah Palin on what not to do?

Mr. SALAM: Oh, I think that's almost certainly true, and I think that would be true of pretty much any populist candidate running for the Republican nomination. I also think that there are some murmurings among journalists that Michele Bachmann might be recapitulating some of Sarah Palin's mistakes. And, you know, that's very thorny, and that's very subjective.

But one of these perceptions is that Michele Bachmann is surrounded by handlers, that she's not really willing to mix it up with your average Iowa voter as much as she had been in the past, perhaps, just as a lot of people have criticized Sarah Palin for being obsessed with her own celebrity.

MONTAGNE: Well, we have been spending this conversation making comparisons between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but what about the newest outsized personality who has dropped into the race - and that would be Rick Perry - in a way, has some of those same qualities.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah, I think that's true. I think of it in terms of product differentiation. So Mitt Romney is offering one product to Republican primary voters, and Michele Bachmann - by virtue of having this very distinctive and fiery and very ideological style - had another. And also, by virtue of being a woman, she was quite distinctive. So that's going to draw a lot of attention.

Rick Perry is also very distinctive in his way, and insofar as he ticks a lot of the boxes that Michele Bachmann ticks, but on top of that has executive experience as governor of Texas, that's going to give him a big advantage. He pushes a lot of the same buttons, but he might seem more plausible.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SALAM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Reihan Salam is a blogger for National Review Online, and also a columnist for the new iPad newspaper, The Daily. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.