Monday, October 20, 2008

Loose lips could sink the dip

Conventional political wisdom would dictate that, if in a tight election race, a candidate should not do anything to embarrass either themselves or the people he or she represents. Don't insult or alienate likely voters. And above all, don't rock the boat. That seems to be the sane thing to do.

Then again, Michele Bachmann is not necessarily a sane person.

The incumbent congresswoman, who represents Minnesota's 6th district, has garnered a bizarre reputation during her four years in the U.S. House. She's a hardcore partisan flamethrower. And she's flat-out nuts. She once greeted President Bush with a kiss on the lips. Then there was that time she hid in the bushes to spy on a gay/lesbian rally. She had paranoid delusions and once filed a suspect police report alleging she was kidnapped. She often spouted crazy conspiracy theories. And she worships Ann Coulter. Bachmann has even inspired two sites attacking her, unusual for a representative. She's the crazy reactionary Republican for people who think Katherine Harris is too normal and Sarah Palin too rational.

Bachmann has a hard-fought reputation for saying really crazy stuff to the media. And her most recent television appearance, on MSNBC's Hardball, could finally be her undoing.

In an interview Thursday with show host Chris Matthews, Rep. Bachmann seemed to be channeling former red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy. She demanded the news media investigate what she calls "anti-American sentiment" in Congress, and even slammed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama as "anti-American." She called for a resurrection of the old House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was charged during that era with fighting "un-American" ideas. Mostly, what they fought against was liberals and hippies. Sleazy red-baiting politicians like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon infamously used HUAC to get their names in the papers and scare the hell out of their voters.

Bachmann held nothing back in her tirade. “What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would,” she said. “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think the American people would love to see an expose like that.”

On Obama she said, “Absolutely, I’m very concerned that he may have anti-American views.” Ironically, the day before, she said, “If the presidency would somehow go to Barack Obama, I would welcome him to the 6th District as well. As a matter of fact, I would put my hand on his shoulder and give him a kiss if he wanted to.” Obviously, her mouth moves faster than her mind.

As a former resident of Minnesota, I realize that the state has long had a reputation of bucking the national political norm. The state Democratic party is actually called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), the result of a merger between two state parties back in the 1940s. Even Obama will have 'DFL' next to his name on Minnesota's ballots. State Republicans, for decades following Watergate, called themselves the Independent Republican Party (IR). Minnesota was the only state that went for local icon Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

And then there were the politicians themselves. Populist liberal crusader Paul Wellstone, one of the most-loved (by liberals and moderates) and most-derided (by far-right Republicans) politicians in the history of the state, was elected to the Senate (twice) with help from an off-the-wall campaign and a dilapidated green school bus. But he was running against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, an utter flake who ran a really sleazy campaign that turned off many rational voters. Given many Minnesotans' cynicism toward typical political hijinks, 'third' parties are quite popular in the state. Independent campaigners were elected as governor twice in the 1990s. Former Republican-turned independent Arne Carlson won the seat in 1990 after waging a strong third party campaign, and was recruited by the Republican party only two weeks prior to the election after their own nominee got caught in an underage hot tub sex party scandal. Most famously, Carlson's successor, former wrestler and actor James George Janos, ran an independent bid for governor in 1998 under his stage name, Jesse Ventura, and beat two well-known party politicians. To be fair, his rivals, Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III, were stiff, predictable establishment hacks who were strongly aligned with their respective parties and didn't excite the population at large. The off-the-wall Ventura was effective at waving his middle finger at the two parties and promising to move away from politics as usual. Oh, yeah, then there was Harold Stassen, former governor and perennial longshot presidential candidate. And then there's this year's Senate election, where comedian and former Air America Radio host Al Franken has a very good shot at upsetting the incumbent, Coleman, who won his seat six years ago only after a tragic plane crash claimed the life of his opponent Wellstone merely a few weeks before the election. Not surprisingly, a credible independent, Ventura and Ross Perot acolyte Dean Barkley, is running relatively strong in that race.

Minnesotans, for the most part, tend to be very middle-of-the-road, not overly partisan. I think they're some of the smartest and savviest voters in the country. They are often too sophisticated to fall for typical political gimmickry and grandstanding. Witness perhaps the state's 'reddest' district, the affluent western suburbs of Minneapolis, where retiring congressman Jim Ramstad has garnered a strong reputation as a very moderate and inoffensive Republican who has constantly stayed above partisan squabbles, concentrating instead on serving the needs of his district. He's a very good congressman. Minnesota, considered a 'purple' state that still leans toward the Democrats in presidential elections, has a long reputation for keeping reactionary partisan flamethrowers out of public office, Bachmann aside. Right-wing political fundamentalism typically doesn't go over well with a constituency known for being mostly laid-back Lutherans. Bachmann's antics couldn't possibly be doing her any favors in her home state. She could easily win this district, as it is heavily Republican. In fact, these types of races are often stupid-proof for incumbents. Instead, she's inching closer to the political fight of her life. All because her mouth got in the way.

After accusing the Democratic side of Congress of being everything short of 'traitors' in her scathing, unhinged television tirade, Democrats fought back where it counts. Hard. Immediately, her DFL rival, El Tinklenberg, started receiving a windfall of support from across the country, with more than half a million dollars in donations flowing into the campaign's coffers. At one point, Tinklenberg's campaign was pulling in $200 a minute. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee just made the race high priority in their 'Red to Blue' campaign of taking Republican districts. After running four or five points behind the incumbent in recent polls, Tinklenberg stands a strong chance of closing the gap, and possibly taking the whole thing. Overnight, Bachmann has become his strongest fundraiser.

The race was already closer than it should have been, with only a few points separating them in the polls. But Bachmann is obviously looked upon by many there as a hard-right goofball, much too fundamentalist, much too reactionary and too much of a grandstander for the polite, fiscally conservative suburban and rural Minnesotans she represents, and her latest antics could very well be the straw that broke the elephant's back. Feather boas are one thing in the Land of 10,000+ Lakes, but hard-right flamethrowing is tougher to swallow than lutefisk and Grain Belt beer in Miami. Considering that Democratic candidates across the country (and especially in Minnesota) are giddy about a potential Obama surge helping down-ticket candidates, and Republicans are grousing about being saddled with the dysfunctional campaign of John McCain and the much-derided Sarah Palin, this could be the year that some rather unsavory, vindictive and mentally unstable characters, like Michele Bachmann, finally get their walking papers.

There's a lesson to be learned in all of this. Playing the part of a crazed, obnoxious radical Republican typically only works if running for office in a safe cant-lose red state. Politicians in, say, South Carolina can wrap themselves in Confederate flags and claim Jesus rode dinosaurs and watch their poll numbers shoot through the roof (no offense intended, natch, to my faithful S.C. readers). But in a hotly contested state like Minnesota (and there's a reason the Republican held their convention in St. Paul this year), and in a lukewarm red district that seems uncomfortable with embarrassing partisan rhetoric, perhaps going apeshit on national television less than three weeks before an election is not the best political strategy. How “American” would she look if normal Americans tossed her out of office? At least she has a potential career as a crazy right-wing television pundit to fall back on. Move over Ann Coulter.


johnsmith said...

On Obama she said, “Absolutely, I’m very concerned that he may have anti-American views.” Ironically, the day before, she said, “If the presidency would somehow go to Barack Obama, I would welcome him to the 6th District as well.



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Iridescent2 said...

No offense taken by this S.C. reader. In fact, I suspect Obama is going to take S.C.'s 8 electoral votes in a surprise upset for McCain. Obama has a lot of support from both blacks and whites here, while a lot of conservative voters have heartburn over McCain (though Sarah's making it better, somewhat).

The thing is, 41.9% of South Carolinians voted for Kerry in 2004, in spite of his image problem! I've always said a Dem could take this state again if Dems made the least amount of effort here. Dean's (and Obama's) 50-state strategy is working.

Tung Hoy said...

Within minutes of her tirade, I contributed to Elwyn Tinklenberg (ET?) on Yesterday, Kos reported that he had raised close to $800,000 over the Internets within a few days, doubling what he had on hand.

The Tinklenberg campaign said it now has the money to run TV commercials and expand its ground game.

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