As Demint leaves Se­nate, his legacy is up in the air

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - From the right Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Douthat writes forthe New York Times. Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day

In

Novem­ber 2008, just af­ter John McCain was routed by Barack Obama, Jim DeMint ad­dressed a Myr­tle Beach con­fer­ence on the fu­ture of the Repub­li­can Party. The first-term South Carolina se­na­tor was there to re­as­sure his au­di­ence: Repub­li­cans might have lost an elec­tion, but con­ser­vatism hadn’t lost the coun­try.

His party’s only prob­lem, DeMint promised, was in­suf­fi­cient ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment. Repub­li­cans had strayed too far from small-government prin­ci­ple dur­ing the Bush era, and then fool­ishly nom­i­nated a mod­er­ate like McCain. “Amer­i­cans do pre­fer a tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive government,” he told his lis­ten­ers. But in 2008, be­tween Bush’s deficit spend­ing and McCain’s het­ero­dox­ies, “they just did not be­lieve Repub­li­cans were go­ing to give it to them.”

This com­fort­ing per­spec­tive quickly be­came the of­fi­cial con­ven­tional wis­dom on the post-Bush right, mouthed with vary­ing de­grees of con­vic­tion by politi­cians, pun­dits and tea­party ac­tivists. But DeMint wasn’t con­tent with rhetoric. He de­cided to put the­ory into ac­tion and throw his sup­port be­hind pri­mary can­di­dates who fit his vi­sion of a more au­then­ti­cally con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Party.

DeMint’s zeal gave his party’s lead­er­ship headaches, and his sup­port for no­hop­ers like Chris­tine O’Don­nell helped cost Repub­li­cans seats they might have won. But his cru­sade also suc­ceeded in mak­ing the Repub­li­can Se­nate cau­cus much more in­ter­est­ing — thin­ning the ranks of time-servers, and el­e­vat­ing ris­ing stars like Marco Ru­bio and idio­syn­cratic fig­ures like Rand Paul.

More im­por­tant, DeMint — and the larger tea-party wave he rode — also suc­ceeded in mak­ing Repub­li­cans more se­ri­ous about lim­ited government than the party had ever been un­der Bush. On spend­ing ques­tions small and large, from ear­marks to en­ti­tle­ment re­form, the party moved sharply right­ward be­tween 2008 and 2012, test­ing DeMint’s the­ory that a re­turn to first prin­ci­ples would be enough to win back the White House.

But as things turned out, the the­ory failed the test, and now it’s DeMint rather than Obama who will be leav­ing of­fice in Jan­uary. Last Thurs­day the South Carolinian an­nounced he’d be de­part­ing the Se­nate two years into his sec­ond term, to be­come pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

Some of DeMint’s ad­mir­ers quickly por­trayed this move as a bril­liant way to ex­pand his cam­paign to re­make the Repub­li­can Party. But it’s more likely

Kath­leen Parker

David Brooks

Ross Douthat

Ramesh Ponnuru that mov­ing from the Se­nate to the world of think-tank fundrais­ing (where he’ll prob­a­bly excel) and pol­icy (where his ex­pe­ri­ence is thin­ner) will re­duce his pub­lic pro­file, and close a chap­ter in the his­tory of con­ser­vatism in the process.

This chap­ter — the DeMint chap­ter, the tea party chap­ter, call it what you will — was prob­a­bly a nec­es­sary stage for the Amer­i­can right. It’s nor­mal for de­feated par­ties and move­ments to turn in­ward for a pe­riod of ide­o­log­i­cal re­trench­ment be­fore new think­ing takes hold.

What’s more, the DeMint world­view wasn’t so much wrong as in­com­plete. It really was im­por­tant for Repub­li­cans to get more se­ri­ous about en­ti­tle­ments and to shake off their Bush-era blitheness about deficits. The prin­ci­ples of many tea par­ty­ers really were an im­prove­ment over the trans­par­ent cyn­i­cism of a Tom De­Lay.

But if DeMint-style re­trench­ment was nec­es­sary for Repub­li­cans, it wasn’t any­where near suf­fi­cient. The con­ser­vatism of 2011 and 2012 had a lot to say about the long-term li­a­bil­i­ties of the Amer­i­can government but far too lit­tle to say about the most im­me­di­ate anx­i­eties of Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens, from ris­ing health-care costs to stag­nat­ing wages to the so­cioe­co­nomic malaise spread­ing across the work­ing class.

So it’s fit­ting, per­haps, that the same week DeMint an­nounced his de­par­ture from the Se­nate, one of the con­ser­va­tives he fos­tered gave a speech that tried to ap­ply Repub­li­can prin­ci­ples more cre­atively. This was Marco Ru­bio, who used an ad­dress at the Jack Kemp Foun­da­tion din­ner to speak frankly about prob­lems that too many Repub­li­cans have ig­nored th­ese last four years — the “op­por­tu­nity gap” open­ing be­tween the well-ed­u­cated and the rest, the bar­ri­ers to up­ward mo­bil­ity, the strug­gles of the poor.

The speech didn’t of­fer the kinds of pol­icy break­throughs the party ul­ti­mately re­quires. But his tone and themes rep­re­sented a very dif­fer­ent re­sponse to an elec­toral drub­bing than the kind of re­trench­ment Repub­li­cans em­braced four years ago. And as DeMint ex­its elec­toral pol­i­tics stage right, his legacy ul­ti­mately de­pends on whether that dif­fer­ence turns out to be real or su­per­fi­cial — and whether the younger gen­er­a­tion he helped cat­a­pult to promi­nence can prove it­self more sup­ple, cre­ative and far­sighted than its de­part­ing pa­tron.

Amity Shlaes Charles Krautham­mer

Ge­orge Will

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