Michele Bachmann Rises as Sarah Palin Falls

Bachmann and Palin represent the latest cycle of hostile anti-intellectualism churning in U.S. politics.

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January brought—or wrought—a new narrative for the radical right: let's call it the Rise of Michele Bachmann and the Fall of Sarah Palin. And I'm not sayin' that's a bad or good thing—but a thing I feel in my winter bones.

The two most visible Republican women may have changed power places at the Tea Party table. The transformation started with the Arizona shootings aftermath (for Palin) and completed with an unofficial State of the Union response (for Bachmann.) Momentum shifted over the frozen northern country's skies, the winds blowing across Alaska to Minnesota to Washington. The change in the air may be lost on young Miss Meghan McCain, whose obtuse father shone fame on an unknown governor of Alaska in 2008. In a recent interview, Miss McCain cut into Bachmann as "a poor man's Sarah Palin." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Sarah Palin.]

Come now, such shades of class are not called for. I can barely tell these two trippy women apart; they both bemuse me greatly. Palin and Bachmann are breathtaking examples of an undercurrent in American political history. They represent the latest cycle of hostile anti-intellectualism churning in our politics, which goes back to the anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing" party of Abraham Lincoln's day. It's too bad when you consider the Republican party has women of substance serving in office, notably the two senators from Maine and one from Texas: Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Kay Bailey Hutchison. In party politics, however, these three are so yesterday.

But on the other side of the Capitol, you have to admire how lightning-quick Bachmann was to step into the breach Palin left in the wake of her defiant, self-inflicted statements on a so-called "blood libel." This language fell heavily on the nation grieving the attempted assassination of a Democratic congresswoman and other casualties, including the deaths of a federal judge and a girl of nine. Palin, who favors gun imagery, shot herself in the folksy foot. Her concern over slights to herself in the face of tragedy brought the worst in her into plain view. As her sagging approval ratings show, the woman who emerged from the wilderness—with a signature shriek—is wearing thin on our nerves in the Lower 48. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Bachmann has the strategic upper hand of actually being in office. So she's constantly in front of the Washington media and American public when she chooses to call a press conference. Better yet, befuddle the Republican party powers by responding to the president's State of the Union speech as head of the Tea Party caucus. The twittering Palin relinquished an official platform when she frivolously resigned her governorship. Now she may regret doing so because a ton of Facebook friends are fine, but not the stuff of presidential gravitas. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Palin.]

If Palin recovers from this fall, the race between the two women rivals for Tea Party hearts is on. The workhorse Bachmann may have eclipsed the showhorse Palin for the first time. On the other hand, Palin received a plum invitation to speak at a 100th birthday celebration for President Ronald Reagan at the Reagan ranch next month. There she may bewitch and restore herself back into the party faithful's good graces. In honoring the jovial, sunny Reagan, threatening not "to sit down and shut up" is probably not the best way back into people's hearts. [Read Michele Bachmann on why the Tea Party is good for the GOP.]

Meanwhile, we can be sure the race won't be won by book-learning. Both Bachmann and Palin display a bewildering command of "history" that never happened and bridle when questioned about sources and facts. Defending herself, Palin suggested dueling pistols were brandished early and often by political figures in the republic's younger days, but failed to mention any. There was in fact only one notable duel, between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, which turned on a personal score to settle, in 1804. In a similar vein, Bachmann erroneously suggested the Founding Fathers sought to abolish slavery, citing John Quincy Adams, who was an abolitionist, but not a Founding Father. And he never lived to see the day the slaves were freed. [See who donates the most money to Bachmann.]

Quite by accident, Bachmann opened an intriguing picture of the past. She never said so, but the aging Adams served in the House with a thoughtful younger man from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, for a brief time in the 1840s. Casting a stark eye on the raging storm of the period's politics, Lincoln wrote in a letter: "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it, 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, 'all men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty...."

And so on. The former president and the future president (one Harvard-educated and one self-educated) are two of the most brilliant men ever to be elected president. To imagine a conversation between Adams and Lincoln, about anything at all, dazzles the imagination.

Candlepower sparked in a talk between Bachmann and Palin, leading ladies of the right, might start out as a strong vivid light and fade out into a long winter night of American history. Too dark to read a darn book.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Sarah Palin.
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