The Incredible, Unsinkable Michele Bachmann

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Has the Minnesota representative finally gone too far in attacking Huma Abedin? Bachmann's position remains strong -- at least for now.

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Back in June, Molly Ball pointed out that Michele Bachmann seemed to be turning the crazy back up. With a few notable exceptions -- her apparently baseless linkage of vaccines and autism in a debate, for example -- she'd mostly dialed back the wack during her presidential run.

The Minnesota Republican's stunts are often portrayed as humorously buffoonish, but her latest offers a sobering reminder that it's not all an amusing but unimportant sideshow. Last week, she sent a letter to several government agencies arguing that Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and also Mrs. Anthony Weiner) should not have received security clearance because some of her family members have been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachmann's letter seems to have gotten results. No, not the arrest of any dangerous terrorists. Just threats to the life of a loyal civil servant:

Police and federal officials have placed security around ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, after a New Jersey man threatened her, law-enforcement sources said.

Meanwhile Bachmann came in for harsh words from colleagues in her own party. John McCain, who's fond of bucking Republican orthodoxy, started it off, but GOP leaders soon joined him. Speaker John Boehner called the allegations "pretty dangerous". Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, on which Bachmann sits, was reportedly furious as well.

So does this mean she's going away? Probably not, for three reasons:

  1. National Popularity: Bachmann might be out of favor with her leaders, but she maintains a strong following among Tea Party supporters nationally. Criticism from Boehner and McCain, both of whom remain suspect in the GOP's insurgent wing, will do nothing to temper that. Her large organic base makes her tough to quietly set aside, and her penchant for making outlandish claims means there's plenty of demand for her to appear on camera.
  2. Money: One result of that popularity is that Bachmann also has no want of money and needn't rely on standard party channels. She already has an eye-popping $15 million war chest for her reelection campaign, larger than many Senate campaigns.
  3. Redistricting: Democrats would love to pick Bachmann off, and they thought they had a good chance two years ago, but she comfortably defeated Tarryl Clark. This year, they think they have another good shot with businessman Jim Graves. But not only will Graves likely be outspent, he's running in a more challenging district than Clark. Though Bachmann has always been pretty far to the right for Minnesota, redistricting has given her a more conservative constituency than before, adding some tailwind. Jake Sherman visited Bachmann's district and delivered a great dispatch, including this laughable moment:
    Rachel Olson, a 41-year-old from Isanti said flatly that she doesn't "think [Bachmann] would make something up."
    Olson may not be representative of the district, but there's a reason Bachmann's been more successful at home than she was as a presidential candidate.

Assuming she wins reelection, what else could bring Bachmann down? The House Republican caucus could try to push her off the prestigious Intelligence Committee, a special group that receives classified briefings. They've shown a willingness to shut her down before, as when leaders moved to squelch her bid to be House Republican Conference chair, and the members of the Intelligence Committee are appointed by the speaker of the House. Boehner dodged a question about removing her last week, but he could opt not to reappoint her.

Bachmann's comments have earned her unflattering parallels with another scion of the upper midwest: Joe McCarthy. Like McCarthy, she seems willing to hound people without much proof and is delighted to lead witch hunts, but the comparison is hyperbolic -- Bachmann remains a far more marginal figure than the Wisconsin senator was at the peak of his powers. Her attack on Abedin appears to be baseless and dangerous, and her fearmongering about sharia law is similarly baseless, contradicts freedom of religion, and could encourage violence against Muslims, they haven't had the same destructive impact on as many people.

But she might want to think carefully about McCarthy's Icarus-like trajectory. His decision to attack the Army for supposed Communist infiltration proved his downfall -- it was Army lawyer Joseph Welch who delivered the famous line, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Bachmann has now picked a fight with the State Department and with a close ally of the still-powerful Clintons, no less -- two of the more powerful institutions in American politics. Unless she tamps down her wild accusations, the congresswoman could be in for a similarly damaging public interrogation.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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