John Boehner's Michele Bachmann problem.

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Jan. 3 2011 6:20 PM

The GOP's Michele Bachmann Problem

By trying to push her aside, House Republicans may have created their own worst nightmare.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann 

Michele Bachmann had a very good 2010, by most measures: She held on to her Minnesota congressional seat by a wide margin, raising more money than any other House Republican candidate along the way. She enjoyed more media attention than ever, beloved as she is by TV bookers for her willingness to be memorably bombastic and serve as a near parody of the far-right. (A recent Huffington Post roundup of Bachmann's "greatest hits" included her comparison of financial reform to fascism, a description of health care reform as enabling a "gangster government," and her conspiracy-minded refusal to fill out the census.) Her savviest move of the year, though, was turning her anti-tax rhetoric into Tea Party stardom and forming the Tea Party Caucus in the House, which made her into the gatekeeper for an important new voting bloc.

And yet, just at the moment when it seemed as if Bachmann's fringe would have to be welcomed into the fold, establishment Republicans pushed her back. Her bid for a post-election leadership position—the GOP conference chair—met with barely concealed dismay. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner put two other Tea Partiers on his transition team while conspicuously ignoring Bachmann. She resorted to reminding him via Politico why he ought to kiss her ring: "There was a real question, even 18 months ago, about whether the Tea Party would become a third party. I worked really hard to pull them to our party because we have to have a two-party system. I have been able to bring a voice and motivate people to, in effect, put that gavel in John Boehner's hands, so that Republicans can lead going forward."

If Boehner's gratitude is nowhere to be seen, it is because Bachmann presents a particular headache for the GOP. The Tea Party helped propel Republicans into office by attacking Democrats; now, with the dirty work done and popular support for centrist compromise growing, wild cable TV statements are looking more like a liability. And Bachmann is Exhibit A. But by withholding from her the formal power she believes she has earned, the GOP has probably compounded the problem. As Bachmann's time in the Minnesota state senate made clear, rejection by party elders has a way of energizing her. If things had gone her way, Bachmann might have been tempted to move past Mama Grizzly extremism, but now, she'll be sticking with it. Boehner should have seen this coming.

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The new dynamic is already in effect: After the GOP put the less tea-stained Jeb Hensarling of Texas in the conference chair position, Bachmann moved rapidly from faux-graciousness to promising an insurrection "against our own leadership" if it failed to accomplish what the Tea Party had asked for. In a November interview with the New York Times, she came across as almost thuggish, pointing out both her street cred ("I've been willing to take on my own party, my own leadership, my own president before, so I would be willing to do that again, if I felt there's a principled reason to do so") and her movement's might.

The next slight came when Bachmann was passed over for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee for which she was rumored to be canvassing and which would have inserted her into tax-policy debates and into the coming health care showdown. Instead, the steering committee slotted her for the House Intelligence Committee, a rather Machiavellian move: While on paper it's a prestigious assignment, the committee's workings are intrinsically hush-hush. As one observer told Politico, "If you're looking for media and controversy, that's not the committee to be on." That's particularly rough for Bachmann, powered as she is by media attention.

She accepted the intelligence appointment in a particularly Mama Grizzly-esque manner, connecting the distant dots of motherhood and national security on her Facebook page: "As a mother of five biological children and 23 foster children I pledge to do whatever I need to do to keep your family, my family, and the United States safe from harm." This was the sound of Bachmann scrambling. While terrorists are one of her favorite talking points (she attributes her 2006 election to her commitments to "cutting taxes, building roads and protecting the nation against radical jihadists"), national security isn't precisely the former tax attorney's forte.