08/16/2011 07:25 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Michele Bachmann's presidential run is an anomaly: a candidate greeted with equal enthusiasm by both ends of the political spectrum. With every reliable poll predicting a double-digit loss to President Obama in 2012, Democrats are cheering her on with the vindictive glee of a crowd watching an opposing player streaking down the field to score an own goal.

I am not so sanguine. Do I believe that, at this point, she has any chance of becoming president? No. But politics are never so immutable as to bet on a sure thing. The election is fifteen months away, and all indications point to a long, grim year ahead. Tea Partiers believe that voter disenchantment will give them an anybody-but-Obama win, and they may not be wrong.

This does not make Ms. Bachmann's nomination any more likely, but it does raise a caveat: the assumption that some candidates are too extreme for the general electorate works best (if ever) when times are relatively placid. Lyndon Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater, for example, succeeded in painting the Arizona senator as a dangerous reactionary hopelessly out of touch with the 1960s. At the time the country was experiencing an economic boom, and Vietnam was still faint on the horizon. It is also true that in most contests between established candidates and self-proclaimed populists, the establishment usually wins (see William Jennings Bryan, '96, '00, '08). But as an axiom it has its faults. Sometimes the populace is too outraged, often justifiably so, to turn a deaf ear to demagoguery.

Which brings me to Congresswoman Bachmann. I am not qualified to render judgment on her fiscal policies or her professed social views but, aside from one exception, I don't need to. Ms. Bachmann's stated views on homosexuality place her in the darkest, most benighted and befouled crevice in the American psyche. It is a place most of us did not wish to believe still existed, and few could imagine being touted as defensible policy. And that is the problem: because Michele Bachmann is a candidate for president, both the media and the general public are compelled to give these appalling statements the legitimacy awarded by her stature.

Like all bigots, Ms. Bachmann has a right to her views. I do not fault her for them, nor those who share them, however misguided they may be. But the cynicism with which they are greeted -- by Republicans, but most especially by Democrats -- is deeply troubling. We confidently expect that her blatherings will eventually destroy her, and meanwhile stand largely out of her way until the inevitable day of reckoning.

But what if that day never came? History is chockablock with deranged emperors, syphilitic monarchs and shrill demagogues who achieved power because too few of their opponents took them seriously. The pattern is familiar: the extremist invigorates his or her own base through the worst kind of ideological pandering, then tacks for the center to prove to the general public that they are "reasonable." As rational beings, we assume that the latter version is correct. But speaking as an historian, I would say: don't assume. Comparisons can be odious, so I will leave it to you to match the Congresswoman with her most appropriate precedent. The list of candidates is long.

Finally, it does little credit to Democrats that they are willing to countenance such a person, simply because it is assumed she will lose. "Vote for the Worst" may fuel reality television, but it is a poor way to choose a president. I am a supporter of President Obama, and will almost certainly vote for him on Election Day. But I am also an American, and I believe that the two-party system is only viable if both sides present their best and brightest. Instead of sitting back and encouraging the GOP, the very least we can do at this point is to register our disgust and make it clear, every day in every possible venue, that we would never allow Michele Bachmann or anyone sharing her views to sit in the Oval Office. Might this ultimately backfire, and result in a more centrist and thus more viable Republican candidate? Perhaps. But who amongst us would not rather an even match between two good and decent public servants than the chance, even the remotest chance, of a troglodyte in the White House?