Rick Perry’s entry into the 2012 presidential race has taken some of the wind out of Michele Bachmann’s sails right when she should have been picking up speed after her victory in Ames Straw Poll and the departure of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, whose candidacy’s demise she helped to hasten.
That’s in part because Perry has some of the same appeal Bachmann does as a social conservative and as a forceful speaker about conservative ideals. But it’s also because, while Perry can point to a decade-plus track record as governor’s of the nation’s second-largest state, Bachmann is more defined by what she’s opposed in her four-plus years in Congress.
Obamacare, the bailouts, the debt-ceiling increase: Bachmann opposed them all. But as Pawlenty tried to point out, she didn’t bring down any of those measures, much less lead the charge on measures she did want Congress to pass. No doubt, other candidates will pick up that argument against her.
In the debates and the campaign more generally, Bachmann has gotten the most traction when she’s been on defense. Her skirmishes with Pawlenty tended to follow a pattern: He leveled a criticism at her, and she came back swinging at him. When, as in last Thursday’s nationally televised debate in Iowa, the subject is something as complex and esoteric as a budget bill in Minnesota — and whether Pawlenty as governor or Bachmann as a state legislator was correct about the details — the winner is the one who can communicate the big picture best. On Thursday, that was Bachmann.
Another moment from Thursday also illustrates this: When Bachmann was asked about her past comment that she studied to be a tax lawyer out of “submission” to her husband, her answer (that she believes a wife and husband both should show respect to the other) was good. But it sounded all the better coming after a chorus of boos from debate attendees who disapproved of the question itself.
What Bachmann still has to prove is that she can be just as effective on offense. And by “offense,” I don’t mean criticizing President Obama. I mean pushing the discussion forward by offering solutions other than “hold the line.” Like a lot of candidates at this stage of a presidential primary, Bachmann relies on principles-based statements. For example, from her campaign website’s section about health care: “As President, I will work to unleash the power of medical innovation and personal choices.”
That’s adequate for August 2011. But eventually she’ll have to explain how she would do that. Current or former governors like Perry and Mitt Romney get a bit more benefit of the doubt on that for now, because they have taken action as state executives (though not always in a way that helps them, as with Romney and his health reform in Massachusetts).
That Bachmann is in the conversation with Perry and Romney right now — having surpassed the likes of Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich — speaks highly of her political acumen. But that alone won’t put her in the nomination-acceptance slot at the Tampa GOP Convention next summer.
– By Kyle Wingfield