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What keeps fueling Michele Bachmann’s inflammatory rhetoric?

The 6th District congresswoman has stirred new controversy with her recent “bloody” remarks against health care reform. Both her supporters and detractors say her verbal fireworks are meant to raise both money and her national profile.

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s speech at the Independence Institute in Denver.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann keeps doing that thing she does. One day it’s a national talk show, the next it’s a speech at some event, far from Minnesota. The provocative comments tumble from her mouth and into headlines across the country.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann

The most recent examples of Bachmann’s flaming oratory came at a Monday night speech in Denver where the Republican congresswoman said people should “make a covenant, slit our wrists, be blood brothers” in fighting against any Democratic efforts to reform health care. “… Right now we are looking at reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom in this country.” 

“Let me be on record as saying, ‘I’m opposed to slitting wrists,’ ” said state Sen. Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud. She hopes to be the Democratic candidate running against Bachmann in the 6th Congressional District 14 months from now.

Dr. Maureen Reed of Grant, another Democrat in the race against Bachmann, also is opposed to wrist-slitting.  She said she does not ask even her most ardent supporters to “make a covenant or slit wrists” in the effort to beat Bachmann.

“I ask them to volunteer, I ask them to give money to the campaign,” she said.

Opponents say she promotes fear
How do Bachmann’s words play in the 6th?

“She promotes fear and divisiveness,” said Clark, who believes that Bachmann is “more interested in talk show ratings than the needs of the people in the 6th District.”

Dr. Maureen Reed
Dr. Maureen Reed

Reed agrees with that and takes it several steps farther.

“Her language is very extremist,” Reed said. “It strikes fear in people and divides us. No big problem ever got better when people are terrified. I believe public officials should be held to a high standard. The bigger the problem, the more they should dial down the rhetoric. When you heighten fear, you paralyze people. Nothing happens.”

But why does she keep doing it?  After all, she almost buried her political career a year ago when, on national television, she questioned the patriotism of many of her congressional colleagues?  Didn’t she learn a lesson from that exercise?

Supporters of both Reed and Bachmann suspect that the method to her seeming verbal madness is to raise money. She now does have a national base, with financial support coming from extreme conservatives around the country. Either Democrat she faces, Reed or Clark, will have to be in a position to reach outside the district to raise money in an effort to keep up with Bachmann.

Tom Horner, a former Republican state legislator and now a political commentator with strong Republican leanings, suggests there’s more to it than money.

A conservative Wellstone?
“If you push the comparison, you can say she’s not dissimilar to Paul Wellstone,” Horner said. “Paul’s approach was more grass roots. But his plan was to be the spokesman of the liberal left nationally while, at the same time, gaining the respect of Minnesotans because they knew where he stood.”

Horner does say that Bachmann has pushed the rhetoric beyond Wellstone. She has to push it, he said, because the media have changed.

“With talk radio and talk television, you have to be provocative,” Horner said, adding that she’s become the perfect television guest. “An attractive female who is provocative.”

State Sen. Tarryl Clark
State Sen. Tarryl Clark

But he also said there are “core principles” at the root of her comments.

“I do believe that her concern that we’re headed toward socialism is heartfelt,” he said.

Horner suspects that Bachmann believes that her flaming words on national stages gives her influence she wouldn’t otherwise have.

“As a junior member of Congress in the minority from a district in the middle of Minnesota, how else can she have national influence?” Horner asked.

But he also said she’s playing a high-risk game.

“Last time around, if they [the Democrats] had a better candidate [than El Tinklenberg] and if there had not been an Independence Party candidate named Anderson, she would have been in trouble,” Horner said. “This go-around there are two formidable candidates — and maybe because there are two, that’s what saves her again.”

The 6th District does pose problems for Democrats. Despite substantial economic problems, there’s a distrust of government that borders on a dislike of government, said Horner.

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There may be many voters who are embarrassed by the notoriety Bachmann is bringing to them, Horner said.  “But they say, ‘I can’t vote for a Democrat, so I’ll vote for an Independent named Anderson,’ ” he said.

He believes that the only way to defeat Bachmann is to make her the issue.

“It’s not conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican or Independent, it’s her,” he said.

For much of the last campaign, Tinklenberg seemed reluctant to go that way. He kept pushing his own moderate credentials as well as his political resume.  It wasn’t until campaign’s end, when Bachmann made herself the issue, that Tinklenberg gained ground.

Clark, Reed making Bachmann herself the key issue
Both Clark and Reed seem to understand that the issue is Bachmann. Both pound home their message that while the congresswoman from Stillwater brings attention to herself on the national circuit, the needs of the 6th are not being looked after in Washington.

Both also note that whoever runs against Bachmann will have to appeal not only to Democrats but independents and disgruntled Republicans as well.

(At this point, it’s unclear just what the Independence Party will do. In last November’s race, the party officially endorsed Tinklenberg, the Democratic nominee, but that left the actual IP ballot spot open for Bob Anderson, who grabbed 10 percent of the vote, despite seldom leaving home during the campaign.)

It’s clear that the party insiders, such as they are in the 6th, want Clark. The list of labor unions that already have endorsed her is long.

“I’m not even getting to opportunity to screen with key groups,” said Reed. “I’ve always thought that this was the party of the big tent, a party that believed in openness and fairness. I’ve always thought voters are better served with an open process.”

Reed insists she will still try mightily to garner DFL endorsement, which will not be easy, given her earlier run as an Independence Party candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006. (DFLers tend to resent IPers, with many believing the third party has kept the governor’s mansion in the hands of Republicans.)

But, she does not rule out the possibility that she’ll run in a DFL primary if she does not win endorsement.

“Like Yogi Berra said, ‘Things are really difficult to predict, especially the future.’ ”

Clark has made it clear that it’s the endorsement route only for her.  If she does not get endorsement, she said she will run again for her Senate seat.

In fact, Clark’s step into the race is a high-risk venture. In the state Senate, she had been seen as among the party’s young, rising stars and was the assistant majority leader. If she wins endorsement but loses to Bachmann, her political career would seemingly be over at the age of 48.

And if she is endorsed, she knows the campaign against Bachmann will be fierce — and probably very ugly.

“They [the Bachmann supporters] will do whatever they can to make people afraid,” she said. “They’ll make things up about me, whatever. So my goal is to get people to know me. I’m looking at every voter in the district as a potential supporter.”

Both Reed and Clark already appear to be better organized than Tinklenberg was throughout most of his campaign. Both claim to be centrists. Both clearly are willing to work hard and long.  Both claim they’ll able to raise money from outside the district, which will be necessary, given Bachmann’s national fundraising base.

“I’m not seeking a national race,” said Clark, “but she already has made it national.”

And it doesn’t appear that Bachmann is going to become media-shy anytime soon.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.