If my Twitter feed is any indication, most liberals assume last night’s debate went badly for Michele Bachmann. After all, many of her answers were pure Daily Show bait, full of ignorance and absurdity. Speaking of Obama, she said, “First he put us in Libya, now he’s put us in Africa.” In one of the night’s tawdriest moments—which is saying quite a lot—she attacked the president for having a “problem with illegal immigration” because “[i]t’s his uncle and aunt that have had immigration problems.” She promised to increase taxes on poor people and said Iraq should reimburse the United States for the cost of “liberating” it. In response to a question about birthright citizenship, she went off about anchor babies, implying she’d try to penalize the American-born kids of immigrant parents, or something.
But in one powerful instant, she spoke with real passion and empathy to the economic anxieties of ordinary Americans, and mothers in particular. The audience in Las Vegas was riveted. I doubt they were the only ones.
“[E]very day I am out there somewhere in America, and most of the time I am talking to moms across this country,” she said, looking right into the camera. “When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosures, you’re talking about women who are at the end of their rope because they’re losing their nest for their children and for their family. There are moms across this country whose husbands through no fault of their own are losing their jobs and they can’t keep that house.” In a kind of peroration, she concluded, “I will not fail you on this issue... Hold on, moms out there. It is not too late.”
There’s much to pick apart in this. After all, it’s not only “husbands” who are losing jobs. And there’s a contradiction between her insistence that poor people are somehow getting off easy by not paying income taxes and her promise to come to the aid of desperate mothers. But I doubt struggling conservatives see it that way. For them, after all, one of the tragedies of downward mobility is the way it undermines the traditional family. And when Bachmann says that people who aren’t paying income taxes need to start, her supporters understand that she’s not talking about them. Right-wing populists have always told stories about righteous, struggling real Americans besieged by both unaccountable elites and a parasitical underclass, and that’s where Bachmann’s message was pitched. She showed that she felt the pain and terror of people dislocated by both economic calamity and cultural change. Further, by demonizing big government, poor moochers, and immigrants coming to the United States to bear “anchor babies,” she told them who to blame. She offered the night’s most powerful, emotional populist message, and it may herald a comeback for her.
After all, the other not-Romney candidates are faltering. Herman Cain probably put an end to his brief surge with his incoherent defense of a national sales tax and his confused answer about trading Guantánamo detainees for American hostages. Rick Perry tried to challenge Mitt Romney’s alpha status and got smacked down; watching them was like watching two apes fighting for dominance on Animal Planet. Meanwhile, Bachmann addressed the deepest concerns of many voters with clarity and conviction. It won’t matter that she seems crazy to people outside the conservative fold if she can connect with those inside.