Rep. Michele Bachmann got it backward in her surprising retirement announcement. Many "mainstream liberal media" critics will miss her, especially the fact-checkers.
"I fully anticipate," the Minnesota Republican declared in an eight-minute, 40-second, video, "the mainstream liberal media to put a detrimental spin on my decision."
Detrimental? To whom? If anyone's political stardom has thrived on the negative, it is Bachmann's.
She attracted national attention during an October 2008 interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews. That's when she called for the news media to "do a penetrating expose" of then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and "the views of people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or anti-America."
Her sound bites became the sort of Internet "viral moment," as political consultants say, that turns into instant cash for campaign coffers — and for Bachmann, more media appearances.
With a flair for passionate catchphrases (She called herself a "constitutional conservative") and a casual disregard for factual precision, she rode the rise of the polarized tea party-era like a rodeo star. She helped found the tea party caucus and, in August 2011, she became the first female presidential hopeful to win the Grand Old Party's Ames straw poll in Iowa.
Alas, that turned out to be the high point of her presidential campaign. When Iowa Republicans held their actual 2012 caucuses, she came in sixth. But she never stopped talking. In a tea party movement that deliberately avoids conventional national leaders or structure, she filled a niche as an uncompromising voice, unrestrained by mere facts.
Bachmann's spectacular political rise offers a lesson in Twitter-age politics. It demonstrates how much leverage can be harvested from other people's anger, fears and raging suspicions, regardless of whether you have your facts straight.
We can look back nostalgically on some of Bachmann's most memorable declarations: That the American Revolution began in Concord, N.H., instead of Concord, Mass.; that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation; that the U.S. government is plotting death panels and re-education camps and that census data maybe, just maybe, could be used to put people in internment camps, as the government did to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
PolitiFact found 75 percent of the 59 Bachmann statements the website checked turned out to be mostly false or "Pants on Fire," their worst rating. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler found that Bachmann told a higher percentage of falsehoods that received "four-Pinocchios," the Post's worst rating, than any other member of Congress.
Now, scandalous revelations that the IRS unfairly singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny before awarding them nonprofit tax status have given new energy to Bachmann and the tea party movement. Nothing fuels paranoid movements like evidence that somebody really is out to get them.
With Republicans expecting to make gains in next year's midterm elections, Bachmann's announcement of her retirement after four terms came as a surprise. "Be assured my decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being re-elected to Congress," she said, which incumbents often say when they really are concerned about getting re-elected.
Last time, even though she spent 12 times as much money as her challenger, Democrat Jim Graves, she won by only 1 percentage point. Now Graves has dropped out of the 2014 race. With Bachmann out, Graves' chances would have been tougher in that heavily Republican district.
Bachmann also has the burden of federal investigators looking into allegations of campaign finance violations during her 2012 presidential bid. But after she weathers these ethical storms, she seems well-suited for a new career in the last refuge of former political stars, TV commentary. Just keep the fact-checkers at the ready.
As for her supporters, Bachmann's departure offers more conventional Republican leadership an opportunity to fill her void with a more moderate candidate and it offers the tea party movement something new to be angry about. Everybody wins.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.