Reading Between the Lines of Michele Bachmann's Retirement Speech

The U.S. representative's video announcing her decision not to run for reelection is notable for what it doesn't say.
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She was the first woman to win the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa during her Republican presidential primary bid, but Michele Bachmann's victory there in August 2011 only wound up calling the legitimacy of the political tradition into question. With her presidential campaign itself now under investigation and facing the prospect of a tough reelection fight, the four-term congresswoman on Wednesday released an eight minute and 40 second video announcing her decision not to seek a fifth term representing Minnesota's 6th District.

A between-the-lines read:

BACHMANN: "Our Constitution allows for the decision of length of service in Congress to be determined by the congresspeople themselves or by the voter in the district. However, the law limits anyone from serving as president of the United States for more than eight years and in my opinion, well, eight years in also long enough for an individual to serve as a representative of a specific congressional district."

Bachmann routinely describes herself as a Constitutional Conservative, so it's not surprising she invokes her constitutional right to not serve as a member of Congress or run for office, even though everyone knows there is no mandate that all elected representatives must keep running for reelection forever. Fittingly, Bachmann also compares herself to a president, which is what she sought unsuccessfully to be and the aim of her only national political bid.

That campaign both elevated her profile and undermined her standing as an elected official. She came in sixth in the Iowa caucuses, transforming her from a high-profile national Tea Party leader into a person who was proven unable to garner more than token support among an ideologically sympathetic population of voters outside her carefully drawn district.

BACHMANN: "Be assured my decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being reelected to Congress."

Despite the advantages of incumbency and outspending him 12-to-1, Bachmann defeated Democrat Jim Graves by only 1 percentage point in the 2012 election in a heavily Republican district that Mitt Romney won by 15 percent. Graves was at a considerable disadvantage at the time. "We had a very abbreviated campaign. When we announced, we had nobody on the team, so we had to create a team and had to create a field operation and we had to do all those things in a very abbreviated time frame up against a very well-funded candidate," he has said, explaining his loss. Recent internal polling from the Graves campaign put him slightly ahead of her a year and a half before their rematch.

Bachmann not only faced a tough reelection battle but a long one, and in mid-May she started reelection campaign advertising on Minnesota television. That, at the very least, suggests she had not been planning a resignation announcement for long, or was uncertain about how she wanted to proceed.

BACHMANN: "Rest assured this decision was not impacted in any way by the recent inquiries into the activities of my former presidential campaign or my former presidential staff."

Inquiries is a mild way of putting it: Bachmann's former national field coordinator, Peter Waldron, turned on her and in March filed complaints against her presidential campaign organization and political action committee with the Federal Election Commission. The Office of Congressional Ethics is also conducting a probe of her campaign payment arrangements. Also investigating the conduct of the Bachmann presidential campaign are: the FBI's public integrity section, an Iowa special investigator requested by the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee, and the Urbandale, Iowa, Police Department. That's a lot of potential headaches for a weak incumbent.

BACHMANN: "Last year, after I ran for president, I gave consideration to not running again for the House seat that I hold. However, given that we were only nine months away from the election, I felt it might be difficult for another Republican candidate to get organized for what might have been a very challenging campaign -- and I refused to allow this decision to put this Republican seat in jeopardy. And so I ran. And I won."

It is not unusual for failed presidential candidates to reconsider their political careers, and Bachmann is right that if she had pulled out late in the game Graves might have surged while the GOP scrambled to find a replacement. This time, the Republicans will have time to find someone who can compete against him more effectively in a district that should favor their party, and Bachmann can step down knowing she's done her all to keep the seat in Republican hands.

BACHMANN: "Feel confident: Over the next 18 months I will continue to work 100-hour weeks."

Being a member of Congress is exhausting.

BACHMANN: "Looking forward, after the completion of my term, my future is full, it is limitless and my passions for American will remain. And I want you to be assured that there is no future option or opportunity -- be it directly in the political arena or otherwise -- that I won't be giving serious consideration if it can help save and protect our great nation for future generations."

Translation: I haven't yet figured out what to do next -- please hire me.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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