Michele Bachmann's Experience Problem


To the chagrin of Chris Matthews, advisers to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) have let slip that she's likely forming a Presidential Exploratory Committee by June, if not before. A few months ago she was said to be seriously weighing the opportunity, and she's made several trips to Iowa to test the waters. While news of her plans is sure to delight tea party enthusiasts, the move is a mistake for the congresswoman and will undermine and distract from more viable GOP presidential candidates.

It's not that Bachmann lacks presidential qualities. Having raised five children and 23 foster children and practiced tax law, Bachmann has multi-tasking down to an art and experience in the world outside the political bubble. She got involved in politics the old-fashioned way -- through her kids' school -- and climbed the ladder from there to state senator to a thrice-elected congresswoman. Money has never a problem for her: She raked in more than $13.5 million for her last race, which was more than then-Minority Leader John Boehner or any other representative running for Congress last year. Bachmann also has serious a serious fan base: She's a leader of the Tea Party movement, chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, and the rallies she spearheads have spread the conservative message and boosted her media presence. She's as mediagenic as Sarah Palin and has spent more time in office, leading some to argue she's more knowledgeable, too -- especially on foreign policy issues.

But a few presidential qualities do not a good presidential candidate make. In the poker game of politics, timing is as important as a good hand and 2012 simply isn't the right time for Bachmann, for multiple reasons. First, as woman who has only been in a national office since 2006 and never campaigned outside her congressional district of 600,000 citizens, she lacks the sort of campaign experience critical for a successful national foray. Her short and largely regional political track record almost resembles the history of the very person she's chided for being the "worst president in history," Barack Obama. But he, at least, had run a Senate campaign in a major state before lucking into a general-election contest against another sitting senator. No sitting member of the House has won the presidency since 1880, and the inexperienced Bachmann would be quickly outmatched by an incumbent president in a general election.

Bachmann's media presence also reveals her still relatively amateur standing on the political stage. Though her enthusiasm and ideology have landed her media hits that rival those of congressmen with twice her seniority and she's communicated the conservative message better than many of her peers, not every soundbite has been a gem. From calling Obama's health-care plan an example of "gangster government" to telling constituents in New Hampshire that the Revolutionary War began in their state to giving a televised State of the Union rebuttal while looking goofily into the wrong camera, her inexperience routinely causes her to stumble needlessly. An experienced candidate can display zeal without being outrageous and evoke pride without making historical gaffes.

Bachmann's presidential intentions also contradict the message of change she's been championing since her election. Since the GOP was in the House minority, she turned to Tea Party rallies and cable news guest spots to air her grievances and present her ideas. But with the new congress, and a majority of like-minded Republicans, she can finally do the work she's been champing at the bit to do. Her charisma, funds and record got her elected. Now she can finally transform her passion for issues like taxes and spending into legislation that can pass. For her to look toward the presidency now is to lay aside the opportunities provided by the new Congress just as she finally has power to create change within its halls.

Finally, Bachmann's presidential aspirations will further muddle an already murky GOP field. While it may be no coincidence that word of her intentions came on the heels of former governor Tim Pawlenty's more formal announcement, her presence on the trail will surely distract independent voters, anger left-of-center conservatives, and splinter the votes of right-of-center conservatives. Like an attractive but still weak independent candidate at the local level, Bachmann will manage to pull only enough votes from her peers to leave the strongest candidate weakened.

The battle against an incumbent president is always an uphill one. This cycle, the GOP quest for that bigger job ought to be left to more experienced -- and, potentially, electable -- candidates.

The author was, in 2006, the Social Conservative Coalitions Director for the Republican Party of Minnesota.

Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder