When Jim DeMint drops the mic, he drops the mic right. Sitting in the South Carolina Senator’s office yesterday at 11 AM as he spoke at the Heritage Foundation five blocks away, aides scrambling to answer congratulatory phone calls, it struck me that it is impossible to consider this move as anything but a triumph, a vindication of DeMint’s approach to politics over the past five years.
DeMint’s approach was simple: treat the Senate as one would if you ditched the false collegiality – “where men can smile, and murder whiles they smile” – to one where you recognize that floor speeches change nothing, that process arguments are pointless, and that there can be no true grand bargains on legislation in the age of total distrust.
DeMint set out to change the Senate, and he succeeded by recognizing that the Senate no longer matters or functions in the way it once did. The success of his quest with Tom Coburn to end earmarking is a classic example of his approach: few things were viewed as more sacred to the antediluvian denizens of Capitol Hill prior to DeMint’s crusade, which tapped into conservative populist tendencies far from Washington to change Washington.
There was a view about how Senators should behave, how they should look, how they should act – and in all ways, DeMint rejected it. It was the preface for all he would do in the wake of the Bush years to redefine his party and the conservative movement.
DeMint departs from a Senate caucus now full of his ideological acolytes, ready to step out from under his shadow. It is no exaggeration to say that Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and many more faces of the party today would not be Senators at all without DeMint’s approach (imagine for a moment how different the Senate Republican caucus would look with Crist, Bennett, Bunning, and Dewhurst – oh, that’s sad). He departs even as he was positioned to take what most of the old guard in the Senate would view as a plum committee position, one where they could hand out favors and glad-hand to their hearts content, to fill a wall with crystal knickknacks and irrelevant legislative accomplishments (also known as the Kay Bailey Hutchison approach).
Instead, DeMint is recognizing that nothing of significance will likely happen in forming policy over the next four years. Rather than be the scapegrace of the Senate, he will aim to transform Heritage into the 800 pound gorilla it can be in Washington.
Many in the media blame DeMint for increasing the increasingly less collegial attitude in the Senate – but he was just ahead of the curve. In the new post-politeness reality, it is in fact more influential to have the resources and weapons of the Heritage Foundation at your fingertips than to be one of a hundred Senators. Let the other Senators play pretend – he’ll be where the action is.
As for Heritage, this move says a great deal, and a great deal of good, about who won the internal battle for the future of the most influential think-tank on the right. Heritage could have gone in another direction – toward the increasingly ineffective and irrelevant old ways of writing white papers no one reads, criticizing a conservative view just to get in the papers, or regurgitating what the Republican Party nominee thinks about something, except with more numbers and charts. Think of it as an analogue for picking between the old Mainline church and DeMint’s PCA church: faced with a decision between existing as an event planner for bored journalists or redoubling their efforts to alter the course of the nation’s policy and politics, Heritage chose wisely.
One additional note: I have seen thus far three people who strongly dislike this move: Jennifer Rubin, Will Wilkinson, and Josh Barro. It’s worth noting that all three have basically the same level of experience in terms of the policy sphere – Rubin was a California labor lawyer who blogged prolifically for Commentary (and blogged quite well there, in my opinion) before joining The Washington Post; Wilkinson, currently a creative writing MFA student who did editorial work for Cato Unbound (again, good work) and ran academic programs for Mercatus before joining The Economist; and Barro, a commercial real estate banker with a bachelor in psychology from Harvard who pretended to be a conservative at the Manhattan Institute for a few years before joining Bloomberg. What are the things these people all have in common? They have (a) no experience in enacting public policy, (b) no experience in political campaigns, (c) have never worked as a non-opinion journalist, (d) have never worked for an elected official, and (e) have never written a single bill or piece of legislation or even, as far as I can tell, a speech defending anything of the kind. (All these defects which would, for anyone else, likely prevent them from writing for a major media publication about public policy, high-level politics, and the like are set aside because: (f) they routinely bash conservatives.)
I’m not suggesting that everyone has to have worked for the White House, the cabinet, or on Capitol Hill before they weigh in on public policy, but it’s easy to operate under false assumptions if you haven’t sat behind a Senator and experienced the process firsthand (for instance, you may be unfamiliar with the fact that key policy ideas more often come from outside the staff and offices of the Senate than the inside). For those of us who have worked in these places, it’s obvious that Heritage just became a far more intimidating entity within the debates in Washington, and that when they choose to move on a policy issue, they will do so with more force and impact than ever before.