WHEN DISDAIN MEETS FEAR…. As conservative as congressional Republican leaders are — and good lord are they far to the right — they’ve made it clear they have no real tolerance for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). At the same time, however, the GOP’s disdain for the ridiculous congresswoman is matched by the party’s fear of her status.

A couple of months ago, for example, Bachmann announced her bid to join the House GOP leadership as conference chair. The party quickly moved to crush her bid, though leaders were careful not to leave fingerprints, and avoided direct criticism of Bachmann in the media.

This week, Republicans were clearly peeved, to put it mildly, about her televised response to the State of the Union address, and took pains to emphasize the fact that Bachmann’s remarks were not the official party message. But again, the GOP frustration was largely behind the scenes.

Jonathan Allen reports today that Bachmann’s Republican colleagues are embarrassed by her — they just don’t like to say so on the record.

When Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was named to the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year, one of her Republican colleagues responded this way: “Is that a punchline?” Another simply said, “Jumbo shrimp. Oxymoron.”

Neither dared to attach his name to his comment.

Bachmann’s Republican critics may be sick of her grandstanding, but they’re more terrified of her tea party following.

To a certain extent, some of this is vaguely reassuring. Sometimes, watching Bachmann’s craziness, it’s hard not to wonder, “Congressional Republicans have to be annoyed by all of this, don’t they?” As it turns out, they are, and I’m glad.

But if Republicans had a little more courage, it’d be even better. What are they afraid of?

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) — who has a long conservative voting record — said he learned the power of Palin’s following the hard way after suggesting she stay out of Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary on a radio show.

“There was a firestorm in the office for about 24 hours,” he said, with people “questioning my Republican conservative credentials” in phone calls.

I’m sure it’s unpleasant having unhinged activists throw a tantrum in response to mild criticism, but the GOP needs to realize fearing Bachmann only gives her more influence — she takes advantage of the chilling effect, knowing that Republicans will face blowback from her minions if her antics draw any kind of rebuke.

Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) added, “She’s got a huge movement. She’s got a huge following. I am sure that many politicians and elected officials do not what [sic] to upset that huge movement and that huge following.”

The following will only grow if GOP leaders are afraid of her.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.