What Bachmann's Departure Means for the Tea Party

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Tea Party

The announcement that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) will not run for re-election in 2014 means that the Tea Party will lose one of its most outspoken--and controversial--congressional leaders, just as the movement is gaining new momentum from public discontent with big government and the revelations in the IRS scandal. At the same time, the Tea Party will benefit from the emergence of new, and perhaps more effective, voices.

In the early days of the Tea Party movement, Bachmann's charisma was a powerful motivating force. The archetypal citizen-candidate, Bachmann was one of the few elected representatives to whom Tea Party activists showed any deference. At the historic rally against Obamacare in March 2010 on Capitol Hill, the crowd of tens of thousands of Tea Party protestors literally parted to allow Bachmann to make her way to the stage. 

The left demonized Bachmann, as it had done with Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK). And Bachmann often courted the controversy. For a brief time, she defended skepticism about President Barack Obama's birthplace. In the Republican presidential primary of 2011-2, she often played the role of spoiler, attacking Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his state's HPV vaccination program for teenage girls, then targeting other frontrunners in turn.

Those attacks disappointed some conservative supporters, and Bachmann soon faded from the race, after winning the Iowa straw poll and turning in solid early debate performances. But Democrats could not dislodge Bachmann from her congressional seat, even after redistricting made it harder for her to win, even after her conservative social views were ridiculed,  and even after outside money flooded into her opponents' coffers.

The most consequential defeat of Bachmann's political career did not come at the ballot box or on the campaign trail, but in the back rooms of Congress, when she was denied a position in the new House leadership after the Tea Party led the GOP back to power in the 2010 elections. Her exclusion slowed the Tea Party's momentum, as did targeting by the IRS--an agency for which, ironically, Bachmann had once worked.

And yet Bachmann arguably paved the way for other Tea Party leaders in Congress, notably Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who followed in Bachmann's footsteps this year by giving a separate Tea Party response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. She also--as some on the left grudgingly admit--has been one of the most competent members of Congress, serving with distinction on the House Intelligence Committee.

It remains to be seen exactly why Bachmann chose to retire. She faced tough re-election prospects, and is fending off questions about her campaign's compliance with Federal Election Commission rules after a former aide filed a complaint against her. Bachmann insists that she has complied with all rules and that the investigation into those allegations has nothing to do with her decision. The full story will eventually emerge.

Regardless, Democrats who hope Bachmann's retirement will slow the Tea Party's resurgence are likely to be disappointed, not least because Bachmann has been less visible as a symbol of the movement recently. Nor is Bachmann's retirement likely to improve slim prospects that Democrats will retake the House. Yet it will mark the end of a critical era in the conservative cause, one that would not have been the same without her.


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