The US presidential race unofficially began with a debate of seven Republican candidates this week. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney dominated the policy discussions, much as he had done in 2008, and fought to distinguish the healthcare plan he set up in Massachusetts from the similar one Barack Obama signed last year. The brassy Michele Bachmann, founder and chairman of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, won the hearts of the audience with her pithy promises to oust Mr Obama. Three pieces of conventional wisdom were thus upheld at the same time — Mr Romney as the frontrunner, Ms Bachmann as an entertaining advocate for wacky Tea Party ideas and, consequently, Mr Obama as a two-term president. Things may indeed turn out this way. But we condescend to Ms Bachmann if we fail to see that Monday opened up a plausible scenario in which she could ride her Tea Party support to the Republican nomination.
No candidate who represents the party’s Bush-era priorities is likely to win the hearts of a US majority. Mr Romney led the pack in the 2008 Republican race by every metric except one — the willingness of people to vote for him. Whether his failure to catch fire was due to his Mormonism, to his moderation or to the millions he earned as a consultant, it was a fact. Next week, a new candidate will enter the race to vie for Mr Romney’s base: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon himself, heir to a Styrofoam fortune, who served as Mr Obama’s ambassador to China.
It is unlikely 2012 will be a good year for rich technocrats. That leaves a thin field. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty rests his candidacy on the proposition that America is failing for lack of positive thinking — the president should not be a “declinist”. The pizza magnate Hermann Cain could muster no specifics on any issues on Monday — beyond saying that the economy is like a train and the government is putting all the money in the caboose. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign can hardly be taken seriously after 16 top staffers abandoned it. In contrast, Ms Bachmann has three advantages.
First, she can explain what she stands for without resorting to train metaphors. She opposes US participation in Nato’s Libya mission. She thinks the Environmental Protection Agency should be called the “Job-killing Organisation of America”. She has questioned the science behind global warming. She claims to read the works of Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises on the beach. As the journalist Ron Brownstein has gently put it, she has a “tendency to jumble her facts.” But her views are not necessarily further from those of the political establishment than Ronald Reagan’s seemed in 1980.
Ms Bachmann is more an ideologue than a partisan. The media “wrongly and grossly portray” the Tea Party as a right wing movement, she believes, when it is actually full of “disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life”. She crows about having fought George W. Bush over the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (Tarp) in late 2008. The most impressive moment of the night came when she defended her promise to vote against raising the federal debt limit, despite the warnings of the president and his cabinet, by deferring to “someone that’s far more eloquent than I” who had voted against raising it in his days as a senator. She meant Mr Obama.
Her second advantage is that the election schedule favours a candidate who believes the things she does. She spent her girlhood in Iowa, where an all-important caucus starts the presidential nominating process. And she told Fox News that the Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party apparatus in two other early primary states: New Hampshire and South Carolina. She does not yet have a big political organisation in place but she will need it less than her political rivals.
And that is because of her third advantage. She excels in the two key areas of US politics: fundraising and television. A former Democrat who worked to elect Jimmy Carter in 1976, she has been a lightning rod for the Democratic party, which has spent millions to defeat her in recent years. Last year, her race was the most expensive of all 435 in the House and she raised an astonishing $13.5m.
The mood in the US is as pessimistic as it has been since the Depression. A party seeking to unseat an incumbent in this age of uncertainty requires a candidate anchored in the post-crash world, with all its fears and diminished expectations. This logic may eventually suck a politician with big ideas, such as House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, into the Republican primaries. But in the field as it exists so far, Ms Bachmann is the best positioned to benefit.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard