At a town hall meeting held in the parking lot of a sports bar in the Des Moines suburb of Indianola on Friday, Michele Bachmann asked a small circle of supporters and onlookers, “Why is it that government always wins? Why is it the taxpayer always loses?” Comparing the fiscal condition of the federal government to a family in bankruptcy, and blaming that on “government theft,” Bachmann positioned herself as a warrior against a rapacious behemoth. “Why should we bankrupt ourselves, why should we bankrupt our kids…to keep this thing going?” she asked. “It is a money-eating machine in Washington, DC, and I say it’s time to dismantle the machine.”
Bachmann’s answers, by her own admission, are facile. “This is the great news,” she concluded cheerfully. “The solutions, honestly, aren’t that hard. It’s pretty easy to figure out. We don’t raise the debt ceiling anymore, and you get a grip on your spending.”
With those statements and others, including blaming the recent Standard & Poor’s credit rating downgrade on government spending, Bachmann heedlessly plowed ahead with her anti-tax, anti-government crusade. Earlier in the week, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said that US political institutions were undermined because “people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default.” Mukherji didn’t name Republicans, or Bachmann, but in Iowa Bachmann wore her opposition to raising the debt ceiling as a badge of honor.
But Bachmann wasn’t just covering her ears to the reality of economic news. At the town hall, Bachmann showed that she wasn’t listening to voters, either.
Jim Dawson, the owner of a small metal fabricating business, asked Bachmann a question that cut to the heart of her claim that slashing taxes with the aim of reducing the deficit and debt to zero is the key to economic growth. “We talk a lot about spending too much money,” said Dawson, “but as a small-businessman I know the last thing you do when you’re in debt is cut your revenue.” Dawson pressed further, “When we give tax cuts to the wealthy, they’re calling it a tax increase. Why is it not a tax increase when they’re trying to take away our Social Security and Medicare that we’ve worked for all our lives?"
Bachmann’s answer, predictably, was that revenues are taxes, and those are de facto bad. She maintained that big companies weren’t investing in the economy because of “lack of certainty,” “tax rates” and “regulations like Obamacare, Dodd-Frank [Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act], the EPA regulations and all the rest.” She then denied that anyone planned to cut Social Security and Medicare for “current retirees.” Bachmann blamed any possible loss of Medicare benefits on President Obama, claiming he “is planning on having Medicare go away. How do we know that? He already stole a half-trillion dollars out of Medicare. It’s gone.”
In other words, no real answers for Jim Dawson, but Bachmann managed to turn the event into a victory lap for herself. “I have been at the tip of the spear and fighting for all these issues,” she said of her efforts to undo federal regulations, employing a common evangelical usage of a military phrase. “I will not rest,” she pledged, “until we repeal Obamacare.”
The political activism around Bachmann’s first place finish in the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday, with a close second place finish by Tea Party godfather Ron Paul, captured how economic stresses have been pushed front and center of the GOP primary even while the “foundational” issues of opposition to abortion and same sex marriage remain principal motivators for many Republican voters. In his final speech before the close of Straw Poll voting, Paul, a former obstetrician, launched into gruesome descriptions of abortion, a departure from his stump speech focused on cutting taxes, shutting down the Federal Reserve, getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and repealing the Patriot Act. In hers, Bachmann lauded Iowans for the judicial retention vote last year that forced off the bench three Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize gay marriage.
Bachmann and Paul outpaced their rivals, one of whom (Rick Perry) wasn’t on the ballot, and two of whom (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) didn’t appear at the straw poll. The straw poll has traditionally not been a predictor, necessarily, of the eventual nominee, and is seen by many as more a measure of how many $30 tickets the campaigns could subsidize for supporters to cast their votes. But in Bachmann’s case, her first place showing demonstrated that she could generate at least as much noisy enthusiasm as Paul’s acolytes. What’s more, it is now clear that and that she had another powerful organizing and get out the vote force: the religious right.
It was also clear that Bachmann and Paul both managed, in a way that their rivals didn’t, to portray the government as a monstrous villain taking away your money and your rights—or in Paul’s campaign terminology, your liberty. That portrayal is based on an amalgamation of conspiracy theories on the evils of government, from light bulbs to gun control to the supposedly socialist nature of “Obamacare” and “central government.” Pivoting from his abortion polemic, Paul asserted that the Internal Revenue Service comes “with armed force” to take money from people who are “prolife” to pay for other people’s abortions.
Indeed, while guns were hardly front and center as a campaign issue, at the straw poll in Ames both the National Rifle Association and the more radical Gun Owners of America had prominently positioned booths. At a campaign appearance in Des Moines on Wednesday night, Larry Pratt, president of the GOA, was on hand to bestow a “Defender of the Second Amendment” award on Paul. Pratt, who was fired from his co-chairmanship of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign over his ties to militias and neo-Nazis, portrayed liberals as “servile” people who “want the government to do everything for them.” He called gun control a “Nazi concept,” echoing a common conspiracy theory on the far right: that the US Gun Control Act of 1968 was modeled on a Nazi law, and is intended to make the citizenry helpless in the face of a “tyrannical” government bent on committing genocide. “What a refreshing thing it is to have [Paul] have these ideas of restoring the Constitution and restoring the Second Amendment,” said Pratt.
Last month, the GOA lauded both Bachmann and Paul as “key leaders” in the debt ceiling fight. Government spending affects “your Second Amendment rights,” a GOA statement asserted, because, among other things, “Obama has begun to implement the first stages of ObamaCare, which would create a national medical database, which could be trolled by ATF in order to take away the gun rights of tens of millions of Americans.”
If Paul is Bachmann’s competition for the gun lovers, Perry may be her toughest competition for the God vote. But many voters I talked to in Ames, even admittedly Christian, anti-choice, anti–gay marriage ones, did not seemed particularly moved to change their vote based on Perry’s prayer rally in Houston the previous weekend. Two Bachmann volunteers, both from Minnesota, one a “social issues” voter and the other a “fiscal issues” voter, both dismissed Perry as not pure enough from either of their perspectives.
Marjorie Holsten is a lawyer turned homeschooling mother who attended law school with Tim and Mary Pawlenty and now teaches constitutional law to high school students in a homeschooling co-op. She brought a group of homeschoolers to help the Bachmann campaign organize in Iowa, and plans to do the same in other primary states. She criticized Perry for “mandat[ing] that teenagers, 11-year-old girls to get HPV vaccine.” That, Holsten said, was “making a really stupid mistake—a good leader wouldn’t have done that. That is such a trampling of personal rights. Anyone who would do something like that clearly doesn’t understand the Constitution.” (In 2007, Perry issued an executive order mandating the vaccine; under fire from conservatives, he later tried to claim the vaccine wasn’t mandatory. Last year, Politifact rated his claim as “barely true,” downgrading that rating to “mostly false” in an update last month.)
Matt Stevens, who was working the Bachmann tent with Holsten, said Texas Tea Party activists he’s communicated with through social media “aren’t real impressed with” Perry. For Stevens, Perry’s support for what Stevens called the Texas version of the DREAM Act, made supporting him in the primary a non-starter. Perry, Holsten interjected, is “not following conservative values.” (The Texas law allows college students to qualify for in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities, regardless of immigration status.)
But Bob Schuman, head of Americans for Rick Perry, the San Diego–based 527 group on hand in Ames to support Perry, had nothing but praise for Perry’s God cred. “We are a nation formed on a Judeo-Christian ethic,” he said. “If you look at how we’ve developed over the years, the Ten Commandments are central to everything we do. We are a country of the rule of law and our laws are based on biblical premises.”
Holsten admitted that as a long-time Bachmann supporter, she didn’t know much about Perry. “I’ll do my research on him, and then rule him out,” she laughed. “I doubt I’ll be swayed.”