Jim DeMint, failure

He's packing up his Senate office while Obama plans his second inaugural and Harry Reid enjoys a bigger majority

By Joan Walsh

Published December 7, 2012 8:26PM (EST)

Jim DeMint         (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Jim DeMint (AP/Patrick Semansky)

In the Bizarro World of Beltway media, up can be down and down up, especially when it comes to what's good for Republicans and Democrats. Most political developments, even positive ones, are spun as particularly challenging for Democrats; disasters can wind up being depicted as opportunities or even glory when they befall Republicans.

Such is the coverage of Sen. Jim DeMint's departure from the U.S. Senate to take over the Heritage Foundation. So many words have been spent on this news. I hadn't planned on weighing in, but after watching all the ways it's being spun as some kind of victory for DeMint and the Tea Party, I had to say: Enough!

Bloomberg News pronounced: "Jim DeMint's Heritage Foundation gig gives Tea Party new power over GOP." BuzzFeed made a list of "The six members who should fear Jim DeMint." (I'd like to see a BuzzFeed mashup of the six cats who should fear JimDeMint or the six puppies even Jim DeMint would raise taxes for, but I don't work there.) Even Salon's own Steve Kornacki, who's smarter than I am, suggested this morning that "his influence on the party is as strong as ever." (Of course you could take that two ways: DeMint's influence may be just as minimal as ever, and there's room to read Kornacki that way.)

But somebody has to say it: DeMint isn't leaving the Senate in glory; he's leaving with his most fervent goals unfulfilled. He dedicated himself to making Barack Obama a one-term president – remember, healthcare reform was going to be his "Waterloo?" – and ending Democratic dominance in the Senate with his Senate Conservatives Fund. Instead, Obama is getting ready for his second Inauguration Day while DeMint packs up his Capitol office. The Senate, meanwhile, is more Democratic than before the election, and Harry Reid can thank DeMint for the fact that he held on as Senate Majority Leader – and even that he held on to his own seat. Of the 15 far-right Senate candidates DeMint backed in 2010 and 2012, eight lost, and five of them lost to Democrats who'd been given up for dead, including Reid. So I hope DeMint doesn't let the door hit him in the behind when he carries his boxes out of the Senate.

Of course, conservatives are kvelling about DeMint's move. “What you’ve got is a great movement with great ideas that’s now becoming a true force,” said Brent Bozell, the Media Research Center founder whose non-profit For America advocates for Christian values. Hiring DeMint was "a master stroke," Bozell says. "It’s just the kind of move that will rejuvenate conservatism."

It will certainly rejuvenate DeMint's bank account – the job pays over $1 million annually – but it's unlikely to rejuvenate conservatism. DeMint's hiring makes plain that Heritage isn't about serious ideas or research, but about political lobbying and leverage. All of the spinmeisters who are insisting the move makes DeMint and the Tea Party stronger are saying that for one reason only: It lets him threaten GOP leaders more brazenly from outside the Senate than he could within it.

Let's be frank: DeMint now becomes the leader of an institution that was founded as part of a broader movement to develop and peddle Republican ideas and counter liberalism, an infrastructure that was amazingly successful over the past 30 years. But of late, that infrastructure has mostly served to insulate Republicans from reality and to peddle the notion that election loss after election loss, the party's only problem was that it wasn't conservative enough.

DeMint's hiring signals that Heritage will do more of the same. There won't be a reckoning with the unpopularity of the party's stands on women's issues, immigration or tax cuts for the rich; there will be a ratcheting up of pressure to support hard-right stances or face primary challengers and/or abandonment by wealthy donors and true Tea Party believers. The so-called "freedom" DeMint will now enjoy is the freedom to become even less relevant to American politics while collecting a big, fat paycheck.

So I'm glad to see DeMint go, and I think it's crazy to depict it as anything but a setback. Being one of 100 U.S. Senators represents real power, even if DeMint wasn't known for passing legislation. Being the head of a "think tank" that's nothing more than a talking-point tank is a big deal within the Beltway, but not beyond it. Let's hope he at least got advice from outgoing FreedomWorks honcho Dick Armey on how to negotiate an $8 million golden parachute in case things don't work out.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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