What happens when a star of the Tea Party movement steps aside from elected before the official end of term? Ask Sarah Palin, who in 2009 abandoned the governorship of Alaska with two years remaining in her term. The trip for Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008, was a wild one. She went from being on the short list of potential 2012 presidential candidates to a right-wing celebrity on the Fox News payroll.
It’s expected Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint, R-S.C., will follow a different path. DeMint announced last week he is stepping down from his seat in the U.S. Senate even though he has four years left on his six-year term. DeMint’s new job will be president of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think-tank.
The import of this development is the subject of intense debate. Why would a politician willingly exit such an exclusive and influential post to lead a advocacy group that while powerful and respected by conservatives still come with a vote in the U.S. Senate?
Here are a few ideas:
Dave Weigel writes: “Earlier this year, DeMint set loose the Senate Conservatives Fund, the inside-outside Republican PAC that encouraged conservatives—and even to primary moderates—to run. He blew a few races, but he succeeded in marshalling through a group of reliable, energetic, media-savvy conservatives, like Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. DeMint was the first to talk down his own political skills and talk up the people he'd recruited. His work here was done.”
Ezra Klein sees the big score: “To state the obvious, you don’t name Jim DeMint head of your think tank because you’re trying to improve the quality of your scholarship. You name DeMint head of your think tank because you’re trying to become the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.”
Erick Erickson applauds the move, which he describes in terms of Star Wars: “If [Republican Sen. Mitch] McConnell smiles at hearing the news Jim DeMint is leaving the Senate, he should remember Obi Wan Kenobi telling him . . . errrr . . . Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Jim DeMint’s power in the conservative movement just grew exponentially. A man who was going to retire in four years anyway, will now be leading the conservative movement from its base of operations for years to come.”
For Hendrik Hertzberg it’s a battle of two conservative behemoths: “For nigh on forty years, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation have been doing a good-cop/bad-cop routine—make that a bad-cop/really bad-cop routine. Yesterday, Heritage decided to double down on bad, with stained-glass windows.”
Don’t neglect policy, writes John Podhoretz: “The temptation for DeMint will be to stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role, which has had its major ‘up’s” (welfare reform) and its blind-spot “down’s” (advocating a health-care mandate in 1994). But if ideas do not play the central role, Heritage will hollow itself out, and that would be a great shame.”
It’s a promotion, suggests Steve Kornacki: “What DeMint has apparently figured out is that in today’s Republican universe there’s less of a relationship than ever between holding office and holding power. This is what the rise of insular conservative media has done. News is interpreted, talking points are developed and agendas are set on Fox News, talk radio and in the right-wing blogosphere. Republican members of Congress, by and large, take their cues from conservative media, rather than shaping it.”
Next, exclaims (sort of) Ross Douthat: “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 Partiers really were an improvement over the transparent cynicism of a Tom DeLay.”
Alabama’s U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, framed the move in running terms: “People have different mind-sets, different goals. Some people come up for a term or two terms, or a term and a half and leave and go on to different things. Some people come up to be long-distance runners, to make a difference, to work within the institution.”
A BAD SIGN?
David Bronner, the heralded chief of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, is convinced that if Congress does not reach an agreement on the so-called "fiscal cliff" negotiations by the end of the year, the U.S. economy will again be in recession in a month or two early in 2013. Bronner’s a smart man when it comes to most things economic, though that’s quite an apocalyptic statement from the RSA director.