Wow. I am interested.
“If I’m in, I’ll be all in,” says Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, artfully dodging my question of whether she’s running for president. Given that she just hired campaign strategist Ed Rollins, whose past clients include Ross Perot and Mike Huckabee, rumors abound. “We’re getting close,” she says, “and if I do run, like all my races, I will work like a maniac.”
That’s pretty much how she does everything, and it helps explain how the relatively junior congresswoman has become a tea party superstar—and uniquely adept at driving liberals bonkers.
After spending a good part of two days with her in Washington as she scurries from one appointment to another, I have no doubt that Ms. Bachmann will announce her presidential bid soon. And it would be a mistake to count her out: She’s defied the prognosticators in nearly every race she’s run since thrashing an 18-year incumbent in the Minnesota Senate by 20 points in 2000. Says Iowa Congressman Steve King, “No one has electrified Iowa crowds like Michelle has.”
Ms. Bachmann is best known for her conservative activism on issues like abortion, but what I want to talk about today is economics. When I ask who she reads on the subject, she responds that she admires the late Milton Friedman as well as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. “I’m also an Art Laffer fiend—we’re very close,” she adds. “And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love von Mises,” getting excited and rattling off some of his classics like “Human Action” and “Bureaucracy.” “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises.”
As we rush from her first-floor digs in the Cannon House Office Building to the House floor so she can vote, I ask for her explanation of the 2008 financial meltdown. “There were a lot of bad actors involved, but it started with the Community Reinvestment Act under Jimmy Carter and then the enhanced amendments that Bill Clinton made to force, in effect, banks to make loans to people who lacked creditworthiness. If you want to come down to a bottom line of ‘How did we get in the mess?’ I think it was a reduction in standards.”
She continues: “Nobody wanted to say, ‘No.’ The implicit and then the explicit guarantees of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were sopping up the losses. Being on the Financial Services Committee, I can assure you, all roads lead to Freddie and Fannie.”
Ms. Bachmann voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) “both times,” she boasts, and she has no regrets since Congress “just gave the Treasury a $700 billion blank check.” She complains that no one bothered to ask about the constitutionality of these extraordinary interventions into the financial markets. “During a recent hearing I asked Secretary [Timothy] Geithner three times where the constitution authorized the Treasury’s actions, and his response was, ‘Well, Congress passed the law.'”
Insufficient focus on constitutional limits to federal power is a Bachmann pet peeve. “It’s like when you come up to a stop sign and you’re driving. Some people have it in their mind that the stop sign is optional. The Constitution is government’s stop sign. It says, you—the three branches of government—can go so far and no farther. With TARP, the government blew through the Constitutional stop sign and decided ‘Whatever it takes, that’s what we’re going to do.'”
Does this mean she would have favored allowing the banks to fail? “I would have. People think when you have a, quote, ‘bank failure,’ that that is the end of the bank. And it isn’t necessarily. A normal way that the American free market system has worked is that we have a process of unwinding. It’s called bankruptcy. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the industry is eclipsed or that it’s gone. Often times, the phoenix rises out of the ashes.”
She also bristles at the idea, pushed of late by the White House, that the auto bailouts were a big success for workers and taxpayers. “We’ll probably be out $15 billion. What was galling to so many investors was that Chrysler’s secured creditors were supposed to receive 100% payout of the first money. We essentially watched over 100 years of bankruptcy law thrown out the window and President Obama eviscerated the private property interests of the secured creditors. He called them ‘greedy’ for enforcing their own legal rights.”
So what would she have done? “For one, I believe my policies prior to ’08 would have been much different from [President Bush’s]. I wouldn’t have spent so much money,” she says, pointing in particular at the Department of Education and the Medicare prescription drug bill. “I would have advocated for greater reductions in the corporate tax rate and reductions in the capital gains rate—even more so than what the president did.” Mr. Bush cut the capital gains rate to 15% from 20% in 2003.
She’s also no fan of the Federal Reserve’s decade-long policy of flooding the U.S. economy with cheap money. “I love a lowered interest rate like anyone else. But clearly the Fed has had competing goals and objectives. One is the soundness of money and then the other is jobs. The two different objectives are hard to reconcile. What has gotten us into deep trouble and has people so perturbed is the debasing of the currency.”
That’s why, if she were president, she wouldn’t renominate Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman: “I think that it’s very important to demonstrate to the American people that the Federal Reserve will have a new sheriff” to keep the dollar strong and stable.
As for foreign policy, she joined 86 other House Republicans last week in voting for the resolution sponsored by antiwar Democrat Dennis Kucinich to stop U.S. military action in Libya within 15 days. Is she a Midwestern isolationist? “I was opposed to the U.S. involvement in Libya from the very start,” she says. “President Obama has never made a compelling national security case on Libya.”
Even more striking, she says the 1973 War Powers Resolution, requiring congressional approval for military action after 60 days, is “the law of the land” and must be obeyed. That’s a notable difference from every recent president of either party, including Ronald Reagan.
Ms. Bachmann attributes many of her views, especially on economics, to her middle-class upbringing in 1960s Iowa and Minnesota. She talks with almost religious fervor about the virtues of living frugally, working hard and long hours, and avoiding debt. When she was growing up, she recalls admiringly, Iowa dairy farmers worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Her political opponents on the left portray her as a “she-devil,” in her words, a caricature at odds with her life accomplishments. She’s a mother of five, and she and her husband helped raise 23 teenage foster children in their home, as many as four at a time. They succeeded in getting all 23 through high school and later founded a charter school.
She got started in politics after seeing the failures in public schooling. “The kids were coloring posters in 11th grade algebra class,” she says. “I decided to do my duty, go to the Republican convention. I had on jeans, a sweatshirt with a hole in it, white moccasins, and I showed up in this auditorium and everyone said, ‘Why are we nominating this guy [Gary] Laidig every four years?'”
“I thought, ‘I’m nobody from nowhere but maybe if I challenge the guy, he’ll shape up a little bit.’ So I gave a five-minute speech on freedom, economic liberty and all the rest. And no one could believe it, but I won a supermajority on the first ballot and he was out on his keister.”
She ran for Congress in 2006, the worst year for Republicans in two decades. “Nancy Pelosi and all her horses spent $9.6 million to defeat me in that race”—almost three times what Ms. Bachmann had raised. She won 50% to 42%. In 2010, the Democrats and their union allies raised more than $10 million to try to defeat her. “My adversaries have certainly been highly motivated,” she says.
But her adversaries—or, at least, rivals—aren’t limited to the left. There’s Sarah Palin, with whom journalists are convinced she has frosty relations, and fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, now running for president. About Ms. Palin the congresswoman shrugs, “People want to see a mud-wrestling fight. They won’t get it from me because I like Sarah Palin and I respect her.” As for whether Mr. Pawlenty was a good governor, “I really don’t want to comment.”
Ever ready to cite stories from American history, Ms. Bachmann notes with a grin that the last House member to be elected president was James Garfield in 1880. If she were to take her shot, she’d run on an economic package reminiscent of Jack Kemp, the late congressman who championed supply-side economics and was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996. “In my perfect world,” she explains, “we’d take the 35% corporate tax rate down to nine so that we’re the most competitive in the industrialized world. Zero out capital gains. Zero out the alternative minimum tax. Zero out the death tax.”
The 3.8 million-word U.S. tax code may be irreparable, she says, a view she’s held since working as a tax attorney at the IRS 20 years ago. “I love the FAIR tax. If we were starting over from scratch, I would favor a national sales tax.” But she’s not a sponsor of the FAIR tax bill because she fears that enacting it won’t end the income tax, and “we would end up with a dual tax, a national sales tax and an income tax.”
Her main goal is to get tax rates down with a broad-based income tax that everyone pays and that “gets rid of all the deductions.” A system in which 47% of Americans don’t pay any tax is ruinous for a democracy, she says, “because there is no tie to the government benefits that people demand. I think everyone should have to pay something.”
On the stump she emphasizes an “America-centered energy policy” based on “drilling and mining for our rich resources here.” And she believes that repealing ObamaCare is a precondition to restoring a prosperous economy. “You cannot have a pro-growth economy and advise, simultaneously, socialized medicine.”
Her big challenge is whether the country is ready to support deep spending cuts. On this issue, she carries a sharper blade than everyone except Ron Paul. She voted for the Paul Ryan budget—but “with an asterisk.” Why? “The asterisk is that we’ve got a huge messaging problem [on Medicare]. It needs to be called the 55-and-Under Plan. I can’t tell you the number of 78-year-old women who think we’re going to pull the rug out from under them.”
Ms. Bachmann also voted for the Republican Study Committee budget that cuts deeper and faster than even Mr. Ryan would. “We do have an obligation with Social Security and Medicare, and we have to recognize that” for those who are already retired, she says. But after that, it’s Katy bar the door: “Everything else is expendable to bring spending down,” and she’d ax “whole departments” including the Department of Education.
“I think people realize the crisis we face isn’t in 25 years or even 10 years off. It is right now. And people want it solved now—especially Republican primary voters.”
Mr. Moore is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.