Cedar Rapids, Iowa—It's a steamy August day, and the candidate arrives shortly after high noon for an outdoor rally in full sun. But bounding off the campaign bus, she is smiling broadly, and no wonder: It's a good day to be Michele Bachmann.
That's because the credit rating service Standard and Poor's has downgraded U.S. government securities, just days after Congress and the president agreed to a plan to raise the federal debt ceiling—a plan that drew a "no" vote from Rep. Bachmann when it came to the House floor.
Most political rallies begin with some local functionary making a warm introduction, but Bachmann needs no assistance. To the thumping beat of Elvis Presley's "Promised Land," she mounts an empty platform, grabs a microphone, and begins flailing Barack Obama.
"This is the first president in the history of the country who under his watch, we've seen a downgrade of United States credit," she exclaims to an audience of several dozen, in a voice that would do service in a stadium. This historic setback, which two World Wars, a Great Depression, and the 9/11 attacks couldn't achieve, Barack Obama's policies managed to bring about.
The problem, in her view, is out-of-control spending and a soaring federal debt, which during her five years in Congress has risen by 75 percent. "If you're in a hole, you stop digging," cries Bachmann. "President Obama has done just the opposite. He decided to go out and hire a steam shovel, to make that hole bigger!"
Instead of reversing this pattern of fiscal irresponsibility, she says, the recent budget deal perpetuates it. "My position has been: You don't raise the debt ceiling, period," she declares, at a volume that could scatter birds from telephone wires.
Never before has the debt ceiling been raised by so much in one step, and her view is that instead of calming worries about the government's credit-worthiness, it fed them. Besides the S&P downgrade, she says, "we saw a historic, unprecedented fall in the stock market."
Obama, she charges, has yet to produce a plan to balance the budget. Bachmann, however, flourishes a pen to sign a pledge to support a plan sponsored by a group called Strong America Now, which would eliminate the deficit by 2017 without raising taxes. "We can't wait another day to solve our debt problem," she implores, "because the problems aren't in the future. The problems are today."
It's not a hard case to make at a time when unemployment is high and the economy is barely moving. The Obama stimulus plan and deficit financing have not restored the economy to its former vigor, and they may have slowed its recovery.
Bachmann is famous for her social conservatism, but abortion and same-sex marriage are absent from this speech. When the president is cursed with a dismal economy, he can't expect opponents to change the subject.
Spending, debt, and economic growth are the urgent concerns of the day, and she offers herself as the most fiercely uncompromising candidate on these issues. That's why the people around Obama "fear my candidacy more than any other," Bachmann exults.
Never mind the contradiction between the budget outline she endorses, which envisions five more years of deficits, and her opposition to a higher debt ceiling, which would be needed to finance such deficits.
When she accuses the president of tripling the deficit, she neglects to mention that the tripling took place in fiscal year 2009—which began months before Obama took office and was largely the responsibility of his predecessor. When she says that by some measures, the dollar has lost 12 to 20 percent of its value under Obama, she leaves out that in terms of its purchasing power, the change has been less than 7 percent.
Nor is Obama likely to blanch at the prospect of running against a Republican whose chief theme—that immovable resistance to bipartisan solutions and temperate compromise—will repel more voters than it attracts.
Bachmann assures her audience, "I am the unifying candidate who will beat Barack Obama," something you would not suspect if she didn't tell you. Hard-core conservatives can wear themselves out on Bachmann's applause lines. Voters closer to the center will find little to cheer.
Her fierce positions and persona may be a hindrance in the long run. But Bachmann has some conservative Iowans on her side—and an underpowered economy that, for the time being, will serve nicely as her electoral engine.
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