(CBS NEWS) -- Did Michele Bachmann set her sights too high, too fast?
tea party favorite announced on Wednesday that she would not seek
reelection, generating a parade of competing theories about why she
chose to opt out of a tough 2014 race rather than fight to keep her seat
Some pointed to the uphill climb that awaited Bachmann if she chose
to stand and fight. Her 2012 challenger Jim Graves, who nearly bested
her in a district that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won
comfortably, was already angling for a rematch, and national Democrats
were sure to pour money into the race to unseat one of their fiercest
Compounding an already tough reelection bid were the
mounting ethics investigations dealing with Bachmann's 2012
presidential campaign. In March, the Office of Congressional Ethics
announced it would investigate Bachmann for allegedly misusing her
campaign funds. The Federal Election Commission had announced a parallel
But while those woes may have factored into Bachmann's
decision to cut and run, a simpler question may have been the deciding
factor: Did Michele Bachmann simply rise too far, too fast, sacrificing
her currency with her constituents in a foolhardy pursuit of something
Asked whether he thought Bachmann damaged her standing back
home by seeking the presidency, veteran Republican strategist Trey
Hardin said, "I do.'
With Bachmann and other candidates who have
suffered the same fate, Hardin explained, "We've certainly seen that
that historically happens, and it happens for two reasons: One, because
naturally the candidate's not going to be back in the district as much,
so there's the basic fact that she represents that district yet she's
focused on something else."
The second reason, Hardin said, is
that "by running for president, you are exposing yourself to national
issues that you did not previously have that could make you vulnerable
in your district."
A bigger platform, in other words, can greatly
amplify a political figure's power - but the enhanced publicity can
also make missteps and gaffes that much more damaging.
GOP strategist, Ron Bonjean, said that Bachmann's "outspokenness" and
her "sense of disconnect from her district" damaged her with
constituents who thought she might be looking out for number one rather
than keeping their interests in mind. "If you go outside of what voters
are looking for, both in your district and nationally, then you're going
to have real problems and clearly she was out of step several times
during the course of the presidential campaign," Bonjean added.
Bachmann is hardly alone in that folly. The graveyard of
American politics is littered with the stories of members of Congress
whose bald ambition undercut their credibility back home. By venturing
prematurely and precariously onto the national stage, the rough edges of
political figures that may go unnoticed atop the smaller platform of a
regional lawmaker can be thrown into stark relief under the klieg lights
of a presidential campaign.
The results have seldom been pretty.
In 2004 and 2008, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, mounted two failed
bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. He positioned himself
as the left-wing purist in the primary field, staking out liberal
positions on national security and same-sex marriage that were catnip
for the Democratic base but a source of skepticism for some of
Kucinich's usually-supportive constituents.
Mary Ridill, one of those constituents, told the New York Times during the primary in 2004 that Kucinich "has done some good locally, but I think he has gone bananas."
His 2004 opponent Ed Herman told the National Review,
"Dennis Kucinich had a reputation for being a man of the people in
Cleveland," but now "he has decided that it's more important to impress
his new friends in Hollywood."
Kucinich, a former mayor of
Cleveland with deep roots in his district, lived to fight another day
after his 2004 race, but he was eventually booted out of his seat after
2010 congressional redistricting eliminated one of Ohio's House seats,
forcing him into a primary fight with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
Kaptur, who had staged no such quixotic bouts of self-indulgence, summarily routed the former mayor.
more direct parallel to Bachmann can be spied in the cautionary tale of
former Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., an Orange County-area congressman
whose disastrous bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination
undercut his failed congressional reelection race later that year.
Dornan earned plaudits with the right wing by calling then-President
Bill Clinton a "criminal" and a "pathological liar",
but his national designs failed to gain any traction beyond the
fleeting kudos of the conservative base. His frequent absence from his
district provided challenger Loretta Sanchez an opening to position
herself as the work-horse to Dornan's show-horse - the one who wouldn't
forget the voters who sent her to Washington in the first place.
Sanchez is now firmly ensconced in Congress, a 16-plus year incumbent; Dornan waxes politics on Fox News.
Bachmann, pursuing the GOP's 2012 nomination, may have fallen victim
to the same pattern of hubris and heightened scrutiny that felled
several lawmakers before her. While she had a brief moment in the sun as
the victor in the 2011 Ames straw poll,
an early indicator of strength in the first-in-the-nation Iowa
caucuses, her bid eventually foundered amid a series of controversial
statements. At one point, she claimed that the vaccine against the Human
Papilloma Virus (HPV) caused mental retardation, earning swift
denunciation from medical professionals. She has also called for the
media to be investigated for "anti-American" activities and more
recently argued that President Obama's health care reforms will "literally kill" people.
eventually finished dead last in the Iowa caucus and quickly disbanded
her presidential campaign. While her controversial statements were not
enough to derail her House bid in 2012, they came quite close - and
there's no guarantee that 2014 would have ended as auspiciously for the
Ultimately, though, Bachmann's fall may
be more a product of her own making than the latest in a pattern of
politicos whose ambition damaged their brand. "I don't think that it's
just her presidential bid," explained Hardin. "She's a little unique. I
think that there have also been some things that she has done or said,
unrelated to her presidential bid, that have made life more difficult on
her than it needed to be back home."
And before anyone heaps
sympathy on Bachmann for abandoning a tough electoral fight, it's worth
remembering that, by at least some measures, life outside of Congress
can be a lot more comfortable than life inside. Bachmann "was much more
influential outside Washington than inside Washington," Bonjean said.
"She ignited the tea party with her opposition to Obamacare...and she
can now benefit from being so high profile by staying connected to the
tea party and cashing in on that experience."