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Michele Bachmann: Crazy Like a Fox

She won the Ames straw poll on Saturday and is the clear favorite to win the Iowa caucuses in January. There's a method to Michele Bachmann's madness.

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Her fixation on niche issues, and propensity for framing rivals' proposals in Orwellian terms, didn't go unnoticed. Wy Spano, a University of Minnesota-Duluth instructor and longtime observer of Statehouse intrigue, notes that one of Bachmann's early crusades in the Senate was a campaign against a state university system job-training program she believed was turning Minnesota into a fascist state by marrying government and business. That was too much for one Democratic state senator, who during a committee hearing put his hand over his microphone to ask Bachmann, "Do you believe this shit?" The crusade flopped.

Still, Bachmann emerged as the leader of a conservative insurrection within the ranks of the GOP caucus, using her office as a staging ground for what became a decadelong purge of moderates. "She was overheard on the floor of the Senate talking to another conservative about who the moderates were in the Republican caucus," Kiscaden says. "And then she started pointing at different senators and said, 'We're going to get rid of him; we're going to get rid of her; we're going to get rid of him.'"

And they did: Kiscaden was forced out of the party shortly thereafter; so was fellow moderate Martha Robertson. Party loyalists who ended up on Bachmann's bad side found themselves threatened with primary challenges, including state Sen. Paul Koering. And she played hardball. Eric Black, a political columnist for MinnPost, recounted the story of Bachmann, at a local GOP convention in 2006, threatening a woman who had opposed her nomination. Bachmann, he wrote, angrily repeated "you will pay" until the woman broke down in tears.
 

There was one issue that seemed to consume Bachmann. The slow creep of the gay rights movement was, in her words, an "earthquake issue," with the potential to shake the foundation of society itself: the family. Taking a page from Schaeffer, who vilified the "rampant sexuality" and moral relativism of the Romans, Bachmann saw the gay rights movement as a secular ideology that posed a direct challenge to traditional marriages.

As she'd done before with the Profile of Learning, Bachmann embraced her role as a messenger. When EdWatch, as the Maple River Education Coalition was later known, invited her to deliver a speech at its 2004 convention, she unleashed a masterful presentation, mixing slides with self-deprecating humor, that hammered home the same urgent message that has since become familiar to a national audience: The forces working against you are bigger than you think.

Bachmann ripped into pop culture, telling her audience about a dangerous show she'd discovered called Sex and the City. ("It's received critical acclaim," she said, "so that tells you, 'Don't watch it.'") She warned that The Lion King soundtrack was potentially toxic to small children because it was written by Elton John, a gay man. She urged her audience to pray for Melissa Etheridge, suggesting that the lesbian songwriter's breast cancer diagnosis might be a wake-up call for her to turn away from her sinful lifestyle. To Bachmann, homosexuals had even usurped the English language. "It's part of Satan, I think, to say that this is 'gay,'" she said. "It's anything but gay."

During one hearing, a Democratic state senator put his hand over his microphone to ask Bachmann, "Do you believe this shit?"

The Bachmanns worked as a tag team. In 2005, they both participated in the Minnesota Pastors' Summit, a conference sponsored by the Minnesota Family Council that was designed to train religious leaders for the culture wars. Michele led a session on a state gay marriage amendment; Marcus, in a rare moment of public activism, moderated a talk called "The Truth of the Homosexual Lifestyle."

Marcus delivered a 45-minute presentation that used his role as a psychologist as a basis for a range of assertions about gays. He claimed, for instance, that more than 70 percent of gay men had been abused, which ultimately led them to "the lifestyle." Then he turned the stage over to a "former lesbian" and family friend named Janet Boynes, who explained how she became straight through the power of prayer.

Boynes was a ubiquitous figure in Michele Bachmann's early career. She sat in on Bachmann's constituent meetings, attended campaign rallies, and was frequently seen at her side in the tunnels underneath the Minnesota Capitol. Marcus Bachmann's clinic hawks Boynes' book, Called Out, in its lobby, with a note from Marcus saying that it gives "insights of truth to set people free." Michele's endorsement appears on Boynes' website. (Boynes declined to comment for this story, deferring questions to Bachmann's office. Michele and Marcus Bachmann also declined to be interviewed.)

For the Bachmanns, defeating homosexuality isn't just a moral imperative; it's a business. On the stump, Bachmann sometimes talks about the Christian counseling clinic she and Marcus founded in Lake Elmo, a town over from Stillwater. In 2006, when the Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages reported that the clinic performs reparative therapy, a potentially harmful practice in which patients are "cured" of their homosexuality through prayer, Marcus called it a lie. But his own rhetoric—implying that gay teenagers are like "barbarians" who need to be "educated"—did little to tamp down the controversy. In July, the LGBT group Truth Wins Out released a hidden-camera video that shows one of Marcus Bachmann's associates counseling an activist posing as a patient on how to become a heterosexual. ("God has designed our eyes to be attracted to the woman's body.")

Reparative therapy is part of a larger idea known as intercession—a practice that entails praying on behalf of others (for instance, women entering an abortion clinic). And it was an approach Bachmann brought to the legislative arena. In two consecutive legislative sessions, Bachmann introduced bills to place a gay marriage ban on the ballot. Openly gay Democratic state Sen. Scott Dibble says that when he wasn't there she brought a group of conservative activists—"prayer warriors," as she called them—into the chamber to pray over his desk. She held a candlelight vigil outside the Capitol to pray for the legislation's passage and, with the Legislature scrambling to finish up its session in the spring of 2004, brought the body to a standstill through her efforts to bring the bill to the floor.

Those efforts failed, but only briefly. Last May, when a considerably more conservative state Legislature took up the gay marriage ballot measure again, the congresswoman helped secure its passage by working behind the scenes. "I was at the tip of the spear," she explained later. Bachmann didn't change the law; she changed the environment.

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