In a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, Michele Bachmann underscored what she hopes will be her legacy: the upstart tea-party movement.
The Minnesota Republican, who last year announced she would retire from Congress at the end of this year, founded the House Tea Party Caucus in 2010, a year when the grassroots movement propelled a new batch of conservative lawmakers to Congress. Stressing her pivotal role in what she considers a still-vibrant, influential political movement, Bachmann called the tea party a "reawakening" of long-held American values such as limited government and free enterprise.
"These are not new ideas," Bachmann told the small audience. The tea party, she said, is "about returning us and our nation to our founding principles, front and center, in public discourse."
In keeping with a nostalgic theme, she recalled her time as a freshman lawmaker pushing back against the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout. And she also told the story of a rally at the Capitol against the Affordable Care Act—"that I called," she reminded the audience—where more than 20,000 people told legislators, "Not with my health care, you don't."
"The grassroots energy sent a wave of freedom-loving reinforcements to Washington, D.C., in 2010, including the likes of Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul," she said. "It took the gavel away from Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives, and with the largest number of seat pickups since 1948. I wonder what this election this year will yield."
Bachmann went on to criticize President Obama's "lawless" government, which she said levies too many taxes, spends more than it should, and is trying to take away Americans' individual liberties.
"The tea party will never be content to let the principles of American greatness slip away," she said. "And with two more years of President Obama's pen and phone to come, contend with them we must."
The problem for Bachmann and her legacy, though, is that this year hasn't seen much tea-party contention. Though tea-party candidate David Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in Virginia, national tea-party groups didn't spend anything to elect him. Elsewhere, tea-party candidates haven't gained much ground against establishment Republicans. In one of the most closely watched primaries of the year, Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent in Kansas, ultimately fended off challenger Milton Wolf, a Ted Cruz-style conservative. And in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a poster child for the Republican establishment, crushed the tea party's challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. In fact, no tea-party-backed candidates managed to beat an incumbent in any Republican Senate primary. Four years after its 2010 triumph, the tea party's electoral influence is waning.
Whether due to optimism or a rejection of political reality, Bachmann has inextricably linked her legacy to the movement that she helped get off the ground, but that is now struggling. For the eight-year veteran of Congress and former presidential candidate to gain entry into the American historical canon, the tea party will have to succeed in doing so, too—and overcome its current trajectory toward being rendered only a footnote in political history.