Senator Jim DeMint (R – SC) surprisingly announced his resignation from the Senate yesterday, effective next month. He will then assume his new role as the president of the Heritage Foundation.
I found out about this admittedly late (3 yr. old twin sons can be demanding) and my initial reaction was “Quitter!” Given the recent electoral defeats of the Republicans, and the purge of conservatives from committee positions, we needed the hands of all of the conservative warriors on deck. Then I began to think a little more about the situation.
DeMint has been a favorite of conservatives mainly because he has demonstrated that he will not waiver from his conservative convictions, and his words and actions back this up. His greatest appeal and influence is at the grass roots level; it is true that he has not been a prolific (or effective) legislator in the senate – not that the GOP leadership, let alone the Democrats, listen to him. So maybe, the new position at Heritage may be a more effective role for him where he can do more good, than in an ineffectual senate minority. One can also hope that conservative voices in the senate may not be reduced in Governor Nikki Haley (R – SC) appoints freshman congressman Tim Scott (DeMint’s choice as successor) to the open seat. He appears to be the leading contender at this time.
The only question that remains is what this means for Heritage. Jennifer Rubin seems to think that the moves signals the end of the foundation as a serious think tank that can no longer compete with the AEIs and Hoovers of the world and a move to a more political powerhouse:
Let us be blunt: Look at the roster of experts there and compare it to the all-star line-ups at AEI, Hoover, FDD and other conservative think tanks. When I or dozens of others who write about conservative ideas want to get a learned opinion, with the exception of Heritage’s fine judicial scholars, Heritage is not where one looks. Heritage has not for some time now been the premier idea factory, the desired locale for the best and brightest on the right. It was in the 1980s; it is not now. When conservative all-stars sign up with think tanks these days, the prime spot is AEI or one of the boutique shops.
At some point, however, if it has not happened already, Heritage’s political arm will completely subsume the think tank, most likely when DeMint wants to bring his brand of no-holds-barred partisanship to Heritage and not be bothered with cumbersome legal restrictions.
Given that DeMint seems to be more comfortable with grassroots activism than research or policy issues, this may be the case. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, especially since DeMint ran an advertising and market research firm before his public career. Perhaps he can help with the awful messaging conservatives are currently employing.
It appears that I’m not the only one who thinks DeMint’s move to Heritage is a good one. Via Drew at the Madison Project, Ben Domenech labels this “DeMint’s Triumph” in the Transom newsletter:
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.