All over America, newspapers and magazines are reporting on Tim Pawlenty’s criticism of his rival for the GOP nomination, Michele Bachmann. “Her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent,” he said Sunday on Meet the Press. I suppose a campaign barb is newsworthy. But the bigger story here is the fact that Bachmann, who is rising in the Iowa polls, does in fact have a resume that’s absurdly thin for someone seeking the White House. Ponder its shortcomings: she has no foreign policy experience, no executive experience, has never sponsored or co-sponsored a bill that became law, has never chaired a committee or subcommittee, and cannot even claim notable success outside the public sector like Mitt Romney.
Why this doesn’t bother her supporters? ~Conor Friedersdorf
The answer is a mixture of identity politics and the validation of one’s worldview that comes from the success of an ostensibly like-minded politician. The question of “Can she competently serve as President of the United States?” is a secondary consideration for many of her supporters, and it is not that important for some supporters of the other candidates as well. Bachmann the candidate is perceived by her supporters and by many Republicans more broadly as “one of us” in two ways: she is “one of us” in terms of her religious affiliation and political assumptions, and she thinks like “one of us” in the public positions she takes. Comparing her with then-Sen. Obama is probably more accurate than the comparisons with Palin and Bush, and even Obama did not compile a reliably ideological voting record once he reached the national level. Palin and Bush were/are not ideologically aligned with the conservatives who supported them, but they overcame this through identity politics and their indulgence of pseudo-populism. Bachmann can appeal to conservatives on the basis of biography and religious belief, and she can also credibly say that she has been a conservative activist and legislator. For many conservative voters, it is so rare to have a presidential candidate who fits that description and appears to be somewhat competitive. Rejecting someone like Bachmann because she isn’t qualified for the position is much harder to do than it might seem at first.
Bachmann emphasizes her voting record because this is pretty much all that she has as far as political experience is concerned, but it is also proof that she votes the way that many conservative voters would want their representative to vote. According to a certain way of thinking, especially when one’s party is in the minority, “taking a stand” on legislation matters as much as, or perhaps more than, successfully shepherding legislation through Congress. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bachmann turns Pawlenty’s accomplishment attack around on him as Obama turned the experience criticism around on Clinton and McCain. Obama insisted that experience wasn’t what mattered; it was judgment that mattered, and both Clinton and McCain had judged poorly on Iraq. Bachmann might start saying, “It isn’t enough to get things done if they’re the wrong things or if they’re not done well,” and then she can rehash Pawlenty’s record of quick-fix budgets and talk up Minnesota’s current budget problems. Bachmann’s list of things that she has “fought” also draws attention to all of the things that Pawlenty has tried to disavow since he started organizing his campaign: she voted against the TARP and cap-and-trade, and Pawlenty conspicuously favored both at one time.
There’s no question that Bachmann is not remotely qualified to be President, but despite this her candidacy has been flourishing and Pawlenty’s has so far been a flop. Pawlenty’s problem is that he is attempting to make the case for “competence, not ideology,” but the role of the competent managerial candidate has already been filled. Indeed, it was filled long before Pawlenty started preparing to run. Republicans already have their Dukakis (and he’s even from Massachusetts), and many Republican voters would rather have a choice besides Romney in the nomination fight rather than a dull imitation. Bachmann isn’t qualified for the position she’s seeking, but she’s eminently qualified to serve as the conservative foil to Romney, which is the role that she now has.
Update: Weigel expands on the Obama/Bachmann comparison.