Senator Jim DeMint’s decision to retire from the Senate to accept a job with the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, caught me by surprise. After a long day of teaching rambunctious fifth graders, I was napping with the news on when I heard the story. Thinking it was a dream, upon waking I checked the Internet for confirmation of the story. Later that evening, I checked the career of Senator DeMint and some other stories about him. I knew that he always proclaimed he would only serve two terms and that he possibly had presidential aspirations. I knew that his political action committee supported very conservative candidates, not all of whom won. I know he was a strong voice in the Senate and on the news talk shows for conservative ideas and candidates.
What I also discovered is that outside some rhetoric and words, Senator DeMint’s legislative record is somewhat devoid of accomplishment. Although he may have presented bills for the overthrow of Obamacare, it had little chance of seeing the light of day in a Senate run by Harry Reid. That, to me, is like suggesting a law to pad your resume with your conservative base rather than facing reality. But, at least he tried. It is also interesting to see that DeMint was never involved in major negotiations in any area during his time in the Senate.
At one time, a Senator achieved star status based on their legislative accomplishments, not their rhetoric or how much money their PAC could raise. But, times have changed and DeMint, rightly or wrongly, gained power in the halls of Congress that was seriously disconnected from his actual accomplishments. Instead, his “power” was in challenging the less conservative of the Republicans in both words and deeds.
With his departure, because he was possibly the most conservative of conservative Senators, the GOP in the Senate just got a little less conservative. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Many of his Republican colleagues are viewing this as a deft move by DeMint. Some have noted that his biggest plus is his marketing and public relations ability with respect to the conservative cause. Others noted that outside advocacy vis-a-vis a conservative think tank is a better vehicle than the most vocal voice among few within the Senate. It also remains to be seen how DeMint eventually emerges from the Heritage Foundation and whether those presidential aspirations remain and whether his resume is further padded.
In the interim, Republican Governor Nikki Haley will appoint a replacement and a special election to fulfill his term will be held in 2014. The most logical replacement would be First District Congressman Tim Scott. Wouldn’t it be ironic that the only black member of the Senate would be a Republican? From South Carolina no less? There is the obvious public relations advantage to the pick, but Scott has established himself with conservatives and proven himself an able legislator in the House thus far. Further, Scott represents a fairly reliable Republican District so there is little fear of losing a seat in the House.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is Lindsey Graham. He is up for reelection in 2014 and already there are rumblings in the conservative community regarding mounting a challenge to Graham. He is seen as too compromising when not being called a RINO. Although the bench of conservative Republicans in South Carolina is rather deep, Graham’s toughest opponent- should he face a primary challenge- would have been Tim Scott. With Scott removed from the picture as a possible primary opponent, Graham will most likely defend his candidacy and incumbency. And who is going to run to the right of Scott in a primary in a special election? In short, the DeMint resignation is good for Lindsey Graham and it will be good for Tim Scott. Ironically, that makes it good all the way around for the Republican Party.
A Jim DeMint is not a bad thing for the GOP. There is a need for the voice and views of people like him. But in another sense, DeMint illustrates what is somewhat wrong with the Senate. Namely, he became a single person with unwarranted power based upon very little of legislative substance. On balance, however, one can say with a great degree of certainty that Jim DeMint is a man of principle. In reality, his biggest controversy involved not allowing gay or even heterosexual couples living together the right to be teachers. And no one can deny that DeMint along with other Senators like John Kyl of Arizona did more to scale back or essentially end the practice of earmarks. This costly practice, incidentally, was done without legislation.
In a way, this reminds me of Mitch Daniels who left public life to join the conservative Hudson Institute. By honing policy proposals, Daniels emerged with actual actionable plans that he then set into motion while Governor of Indiana. Perhaps after four or so years at the Heritage Foundation, DeMint will do likewise and seek office again. Either way, I do not believe for a second that we have heard the last of Jim DeMint in the world of politics. In political time, four years is very short.