If Capitol Hill is really one big high school, the “It” girl of the moment is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
A recent Gallup poll of Republicans found Bachmann had the second-highest positive intensity rating of any of the potential 2012 candidates in the GOP field. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and my colleague at Fox, came in first.
In the last week alone, newspapers ranging from The New York Times to The Washington Times have run profiles on Bachmann full of speculation about her next move in the GOP presidential contest. She has made numerous trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, suggesting she might make a run for the presidency as either a Republican or a third party, Tea Party-backed candidate. TV’s John McLaughlin declared on his show that Bachmann will be the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president.
But what about Bachmann’s current job?
She is the founder and leader of the 52-member House Tea Party Caucus and serves on two key committees: Intelligence and Financial Services. And in amazing fashion, she now seems to be running her own shadow Republican caucus in which she is speaker, floor leader, whip and conference chairwoman for the Tea Party passions that threaten to split Republicans on the Hill.
She tried, unsuccessfully, to blow up the most recent continuing resolution because of a hitherto unseen $105 billion in healthcare reform funding. She managed to corral 54 “no” votes, mostly from freshmen Republicans, and gave the impression that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) cannot control his own caucus.
Bachmann’s rock-star status on the far right has put the House GOP leadership in a difficult position. She is undermining the ability of the Republican majority in the House to govern.
She raised eyebrows by giving a Tea Party response to the State of the Union, stealing the spotlight from the official Republican respondent, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Bachmann is likely to be in the spotlight again this week with Tea Party Patriots rallying at the Capitol against Republicans in the leadership — Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ryan — who are trying to reach a compromise on the 2011 budget and the debt ceiling. It is easy to forget that in January she lost her bid for chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 leadership spot.
On talk radio and conservative websites, the congresswoman is the star witness against any budget deal. She argues with fury and sparkling eyes that proposed cuts in spending have been too shallow and there is no need to fear a government shutdown. Bachmann is also livid that health care reform is the law of the land, oblivious to the fact that it is increasingly popular with the public and every effort to reverse it can be blocked by the Democratically-controlled Senate.
Will she attempt to derail the next continuing resolution because she deems it to be insufficiently conservative? How about the vote to raise the debt ceiling? How long will the GOP leadership indulge her antics on important votes? Can they really do anything to stop her?
Boehner must be careful how he deals with Bachmann and her supporters. Ohio Tea Party activists have already launched a phone campaign in his home district to complain he is not a true conservative for failing to block a possible debt-limit increase. Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, is openly looking for a recruit to run against Boehner in the next primary. “Charlie Sheen is now making more sense than John Boehner,” a mocking Phillips wrote recently.
So as the next election draws closer, Boehner might need Bachmann and her Tea Party credibility as a working member of Congress to mollify those brash, uncompromising forces in the party. And the Speaker could also use her unrivaled stature to push back against Tea Party primary challenges to several vulnerable Republicans who are loyal to him.
If Bachmann plays her cards right and begins to pick her battles more strategically, she could have considerable leverage on the Hill. However, the business of being a serious legislator and political power broker is not always fun. It certainly cannot be as fun as going on television every night, flirting with a run for president and being talked about as the leader of a radical political movement.
But Bachmann is also dancing on the razor’s edge of becoming marginalized as someone who is not serious — a self-serving celebrity, in high school lingo a “Mean Girl.”
That is the same toxic formula that has led to Sarah Palin’s falling poll numbers. Boehner might decide the smart play is to take on Bachmann in an effort to increase his appeal to mainstream Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats.
The “It” girl may just be the one to bring out the tough guy in John Boehner.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. Click here to read his recent five part piece for Fox News Opinion on "The Children of Juarez" His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."