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Bye-Bye Bachmann—and Tea Party?

What the Minnesota congresswoman's exit means for a divided conservative movement.
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My email inbox may not be representative, but liberal groups seemed more exercised by Michele Bachmann’s impending retirement from Congress than conservative groups.

After Bachmann announced she wouldn’t seek another term in 2014, NARAL Pro-Choice America crowed about her departure, while the press releases I received from Tea Party groups paying tribute to her service were polite but restrained.

Since winning her House seat in central Minnesota in 2006, Bachmann emerged as a prominent conservative figure, going so far as to run for president last year. She surged to the lead in Iowa polls after winning Ames, but dropped out after finishing sixth in the actual caucuses with just 5 percent of the vote, the worst showing of any candidate actively contesting the state.

Some have privately griped about her leadership of the House Tea Party Caucus, complaining the group was less relevant than other conservative factions such as the Republican Study Committee. And any regrets colleagues may have about her leaving may be tempered by the fact money that would be spent on her races will now flow into other candidates’ coffers.

“If anything, Bachmann’s exit means that the conservative movement is about to be better-funded, because conservative small-donors won’t be spending over $10 million to re-elect her to a completely safe House seat every two years,” conservative journalist David Freddoso wrote. “Campaign money is a limited resource, and Michele Bachmann may hold a lifetime record for wasting it.”

Bachmann barely won re-election last year in a congressional district Mitt Romney carried by 15 points. And that was before the FBI investigation her 2012 presidential campaign. Bachmann’s declaration of candidacy in Waterloo, Iowa may have indeed been her Waterloo.

Yet Bachmann’s exit may have broader implications for the conservative movement than freeing up funds or improving the GOP’s prospects in a single district. (Though it certainly did improve them—the Democratic candidate for the seat dropped out two days after learning of her decision.) Jesse Helms was a movement leader for decades despite making his re-election bids more competitive than they needed to be.

Bachmann was in many ways a throwback to Helms-style conservatism, with some added conspiratorial twists. The Tea Party she represented has always had two distinct poles: those attracted to a substantially, though not exclusively, libertarian politics of limited government; and a wing driven by red-state identity politics, more anti-left than anti-state.

This distinction appeared in a Politico exit poll of a major Tea Party rally in 2010. Attendees who had a preferred political leader were split between Sarah Palin, who represented the latter tendency, and Ron Paul, who may well personify the former.

It’s more of a spectrum along which Tea Party activists may find themselves in various places rather than a precise divide. Paul is more socially conservative than the typical Reason libertarian, while Palin is somewhat more comfortable with libertarianism than the average religious conservative. Bachmann herself would eventually become interested in Austrian economics and cast a surprising NDAA vote after a long stretch of siding with hawks on most important issues.

Paul and Palin left electoral politics before Bachmann, yet they remain important figures and both have successors on the horizon. Rand Paul is in many ways his father’s son, and there is no shortage of Palin-Bachmann Republicans in the House.

What is unclear is whether the Tea Party—or the Republican Party, for that matter—will be more interested in revisiting drug sentences or simply railing against Barack Obama. Bachmann’s 2012 rallying cry was the unfulfilled hope that Obama would be a one-term president, while Ted Cruz recently proclaimed, “I don’t trust the Republicans, and I don’t trust the Democrats.”

Whether she ever runs for elected office again or not, Michele Bachmann will almost certainly have some kind of political future. There are speeches to deliver and organizations to run. The question is whether that future is also conservatism’s.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the newly released Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?



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