Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is quite a piece of work. Think she could lead the free world?

Michelle Bachmann is a United States Congresswoman, who has represented the sixth district in Minnesota for the past four years. She's also one of the "leaders" of the tea-party movement, if that rather diffuse and confused phenomenon can be said to have leaders. For example, Mrs Bachmann gave the tea-party's response to Obama's state-of-the-nation speech yesterday.

(Yes, that's right. Alongside the Republican Party's official response to Obama (delivered by another member of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan - who is an enthusiast of Ayn Rand and something of a tea-party favourite himself), the tea-party gave its own separate response to Obama's proposals.)

In addition to all of this, Mrs Bachmann appears to be either a moron or a liar.

Here's the story. On January 21, she went to Iowa and gave a speech to a group called "Iowans for Tax Relief". I assume from the name it consists of people who want to help lift a heavy load from off the shoulders of taxes, or something.

What is a relatively newbie member of Congress doing giving speeches to people who live in the state next to the one they represent, I hear you ask? Well, Iowa just happens to be the place where the 2012 presidential campaign will kick off [ed: early next year] when it holds caucuses to select each party's nominee. And it appears Mrs Bachmann has the idea that she could trade the House of Representatives for the White House.

How serious she is about this is hard to know. She might well be quite successful in the caucuses, which rely on turning out numbers of highly committed party members to participate in a lengthy debate-and-voting process. Her hyped-up tea-party base is ideal for just such an occasion.

But I'm pretty certain the world is not yet so insane that she could ever be nominated as the Republican Party's choice for President. So it is more likely that by getting people talking about her as a possible contender, she's burnishing her leadership credentials within the party - just as Sarah Palin is using the speculation about her presidential ambitions to build her media fortune.

However, back to the story. Mrs Bachmann turns up in Iowa to give a speech that lauds US exceptionalism and warns that the nation's promise is under threat unless concerned citizens commit to changing it for the better. So far, so standard for US political discourse; Obama's state-of-the-nation speech was pretty much along the same lines.

The problem was that Mrs Bachmann didn't just stick to the usual "we're the greatest, God loves us, and if we just all try a bit harder all our problems will go away" routine. She decided to put present problems in a little bit of historical context.

First, she reminded her audience of the USA's history of tolerance and determination to treat all people as equally worthy of respect.


"It didn’t matter the color of their skin. it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status. it didn’t matter whether they descended from know royalty or are of a higher class or a lower class. it made no difference, once you got here, we were all the same."


A beautiful picture, right? Of course, to make it work you have to ignore this. And this. And this. And this. And this. Plus there is the slightly inconvenient fact that for the first 70-something years of the USA's existence, people with black skin were owned by people with white skin.

Mrs Bachmann had an answer for that particular objection, however:



"We know that was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil and a block and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our fore-bearers who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."

Unfortunately, of course, the founding fathers didn't "work tirelessly until slavery was no more". For one thing, they were all dead long before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation in 1863. For another, a good number of them owned slaves of their own - including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And while Jefferson may have been conflicted about the issue of slavery, it didn't stop him raping at least one of the women he "owned".

Oh - and John Quincy Adams? He did oppose slavery - but he wasn't a "founder" of the USA. He was only 9 years old when the Declaration of Independence was issued.

So that's why I think Mrs Bachmann is either a moron or a liar. If she genuinely believed the words she spoke in Iowa, she is a moron. More likely, she knew it was hogwash but chose to say it anyway. Which makes her a liar.

Or perhaps there is a third possibility. Mrs Bachmann and her ilk suffer from a disease known as constitutional myopia. This occurs when a nation's constitution is treated less as a legal document that structures how governmental power is to operate and more as a matter of religious dogma which may not be challenged or questioned in any way.

A symptom of this disease is the recent decision to read, in its entirety, the US Constitution before the new term of Congress began. (Actually, when I say "in its entirety", I mean except for the bits of the Constitution that have been amended over time - like the bit declaring slaves to count as "three fifths of all other persons".)

Mrs Bachmann appears to suffer from a particularly aggressive form of this disease. For instance, she's arranged for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia - he of "original intent" fame - to "teach a class" on the Constitution to interested Congress members. After all, they're all good Republican's engaged in the same basic job, so why shouldn't the judicial and legislative branches get together to have a chat about the best way to do it?

So for Mrs Bachmann to admit that the US Constitution isn't actually perfect, the people who wrote it weren't moral paragons, and that the society that has grown up under it has some pretty major flaws would not only be politically difficult, it would result in significant cognitive dissonance.

In short, it might make her head explode.





Comments (8)

by Graeme Edgeler on January 27, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

1.The Iowa caucuses are not being held later this year. And the Iowa caucuses do not select the nominee. The Republican caucuses select the people who will select the people who will select the nominee. The Democratic caucuses largely help select the people who will select the people who will select the people who will select the nominee.

2. Michelle Bachman did not claim that John Quincy Adams was a founding father, she claimed he was a "fore-bearer", and using the guy's death to show he "rested" before slavery was abolished is a little off :-)

3. The Constitution did not declare that slaves were three-fifths of a person. It implicity declares that they were all persons, and in order to ensure that the power of the states that allowed slavery was more limited, only counted three-fifths of them for congressional apportionment (and by implication, Presidential electors). Are you suggesting that the better course to have taken would have been to count all slaves for the purposes of apportionment, which would have increased the political power of slave states within the Federal Government? The three-fifths compromise was decidely liberal in intent.

4. Antonin Scalia completely rejects "original intent" as a means of interpreting the Constitution of the United States of America.

by Andrew Geddis on January 27, 2011
Andrew Geddis

1. Yes - quite right. Caucuses are Feb. 6 next year. My bad. As for the rest, this isn't a Legal Beagle column where 15,000 words is the norm, so I'll use shorthand, thank you.

2. Context, Graeme! Literally, what you say may be true. But it's clearly not what she meant!

3. I don't see the link between your first sentence and the rest of your comment. And if it was such a peachy thing to do, why not proudly read it out on the floor of the House?

4. I wonder, then, why he said this:

"I am one of a small number of judges, small number of anybody — judges, professors, lawyers — who are known as originalists. Our manner of interpreting the Constitution is to begin with the text, and to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people."

Now, I know what you'll say. He's not interested in the intentions of the authors of the document, but how the populace of the time would have understood the words used. Which then gets into tricky questions of authorship (was the Constitution the product of those who wrote it, or those who adopted it?) and whether imposing an understanding on words is "interpretation" at all. But we're not going there.

by Pete Turangi on January 27, 2011
Pete Turangi
by Graeme Edgeler on January 27, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

In a post devoted to correcting someone's misunderstandings of US Political History, you have to expect a little push back :-)

3. Why not read it on the floor? Because it had been superseded. Which isn't to say they shouldn't have read it, but it's a pretty good reason not to. If the point of the exercise was to remind legislators of their responibilities to the Constitution, and indeed their oaths of office, why would you reads bits they should no longer uphold?

4. Scalia is undoubtedly an originalist. But he completely rejects legislative intent (or framers' intent) as an aid to intepretation. In one case at the Supreme Court, he adopted the whole of a collegue's opinion, save for the last paragraph, where that judge used legislative intent to support their conclusion; the rest of his judgment (quite substantial) was devoted to explaining why that judge (correct in everything else they did, in his mind) was wrong to write that last paragraph.

by Andrew Geddis on January 27, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Dammit, Graeme ... I said I wasn't going to argue about Scalia's interpretative theory! It boils down to whose "original intent" matters - the intention of the people who wrote the Constitution (insofar as we can work out what it was that they meant by their words), or the assumed intention of the people who agreed to adopt it (insofar as we think we know what they understood the document's words to mean at that time).

But I'm not going to argue this! I'm really, really not! Interested persons can read this instead.

by Toby on January 27, 2011


As much i'm reluctant to rule out anything in the current political climate in the US, I dont' think Bachmann will be the nominee for the Republicans - but I think she would be a possible pick for VP. She'd give teaparty cover to a more establishment cadidate (such as Romney); she's regarded as having good credentials amongst Christian conservatives, and theres the added benefit of her being female running against what will (presumably) again be an all male democrat ticket.

so there's a comforting thought for you - she might not be in the oval office, but merely one heart beat away from it.

by Chris Webster on January 27, 2011
Chris Webster

Given that the US constitution was drafted and ratified without the participation of both women and slaves it is interesting that Bachmann focused on slavery and not of the sexism that existed.

Thinking out loud:  Would Bachmann have said what she said had the president not been black? And if Hilary had been president would she have said:

"We know that was sexism that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil and a block and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until sexism was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our fore-bearers who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until sexism was extinguished in the country."

 I wonder if she’s related to Joe McCarthy?

Isn't this fun?

by Tim Watkin on January 27, 2011
Tim Watkin

Of course she might just have got John Quincy mixed up with her dad, who was a founder. Or maybe as Graeme generously interprets she was drawing a line between those two sentences and between "founders" and forebears".

But it is scary that the constitution seems to be in the process of being raised to a semi-religious document, and the founders to demi-gods. It's long been revered, but the tea party is taking it even further; almost as gospel.

The other thing that gets me is this seemingly concerted effort to re-write history. I caught a few minutes of Beck on Fox tonight, saying, y'know 'government isn't the solution, it's the problme, ya de ya'. But he played the history card and said governments have never created anything in the history of that great country.

Which is simply, stupendously staggering.

I mean, Eerie Canal, the Hoover Dam, the LA water pipe, Eisenhower's interstates, NASA, vast science budgets, the defence and university money that went into the freakin' internet, for crying out loud... The US has always preached the free market while using public funds to give its private sector a head start, and done it pretty darn well.


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