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posted: 7/27/2011 5:00 AM

Headaches are the least of GOP's worries

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For a second, I could not believe my eyes. I saw a headline, or at least I thought I did, which went like this: "Pawlenty Questions Bachmann's Fitness." I rose out of my chair and exclaimed hallelujah (or something like that) because here in the person of Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, was a Republican notable willing to say out loud that Michele Bachmann was not qualified to be president of the United States and, moreover, up to that very moment, not a single other Great Republican had been willing to say anything like this. But it was true, of course, it was true.

I could hardly contain myself. I was sure that the article would mention how Bachmann spied on a gay rally, crawling in on her hands and knees to see how those homosexuals conducted themselves and acted and talked and who knows what else. And I thought it would mention her husband the shrink who practices conversion therapy, which is supposed to make heterosexuals out of homosexuals, so that they would be in conformity with what God wants, assuming the Bachmanns and others in their posse know what God wants.

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And I thought I would read something about "the Last Days," which Bachmann says is coming, and has said so in a speech currently circling the blogosphere in which all sorts of religious words come breathily at you, like Marilyn Monroe's purrings in "Some Like It Hot." I thought Pawlenty, who often proclaims his own religious bona fides -- "God's in charge," he told the Conservative Political Action Conference, repeating himself for emphasis -- might say something since he has the religious cred to do so on this matter. I lack that credential, but suggest in passing that it seems, in Washington at least, that no one's in charge.

Or maybe he would mention her stand on raising the debt ceiling. She doesn't care if the country's economic structure takes a tumble, not that she thinks it will. For evidence, she provides her own say-so, which maybe some persnickety guys on the bond market may find insufficient, but some of them are surely gay and so to hell with them. Pawlenty would set her straight.

All these thoughts went through my head, befogging me. And then I looked further and I saw that Pawlenty was responding to reports that Bachmann suffered from migraines. What? Headaches? We're talking headaches? The woman is an ignoramus, a bigot when it comes to gays, wholly unqualified for the presidency and yet Pawlenty courageously suggests that migraines might make her less than presidential material. Of course, having summoned the courage to question her on that score, he then backed down. Unaccountable episodes of boldness sometimes seize Pawlenty but he soon recovers and reverts to a comforting placidity -- without, I'm sure his aides would say, missing a day's work.

Still, Pawlenty should become Mr. Republican, a term once reserved for Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. He personifies the near-total lack of leadership among leading contenders for the GOP nomination. Not only will they not confront Bachmann and the nonsense she spews, but they diligently turn their backs on their obligation to educate their own constituencies. For the time being, they seek to become president of only the 119,188 Republicans who voted in the 2008 Iowa caucus, and then only those whose conservatism has been set in concrete.

The problems of American governance are systemic. Congressional districts that are safely one party are as destructive as Britain's old rotten boroughs. The primary/caucus system can be a parody of democracy and the process is awash with special interest money. In the GOP, the upshot is that a herd of presidential candidates goes to graze in the same far-right pasture, a bucolic landscape peopled by political, religious and social trolls.

To fix what ails us will take time, ingenuity and political courage. At the moment, it is the latter that's nowhere in sight. The right wing of the GOP is willing, if not able, to take the nation right into default and a bevy of Republican leaders, most of them knowing better, are too cowed to object. They prattle on about leadership yet do nothing but follow.

Of course Michele Bachmann does not deserve to be in the presidential race. Legislatively, she has done little, she knows next to nothing and what she thinks she does know is wrong. For a moment, I thought one of her GOP competitors had said so, but I was mistaken.

It must have been a headache.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, Washington Post Writers Group $PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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