Jim DeMint: How to judge his legacy

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has written an interesting piece about Jim DeMint’s move from the senate to the Heritage Foundation — so interesting, that it deserves some commentary.

Douthat writes:

DeMint’s zeal gave his party’s leadership headaches, and his support for no-hopers 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.

Pundits who have been critical of DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation typically argue that he has had little accomplishments in the senate. But different people are called to different missions. Conservatives are generally content with a senator who can simply block bad legislation.

And, to his credit, Douthat clearly realizes that DeMint’s primary contribution to conservatism wasn’t in crafting legislation, but rather, was in identifying — and supporting — a new generation of conservatives in the senate.

Regarding Christine O’Donnell, you take the bad with the good. DeMint backed a lot of candidate’s who lost, but if you don’t make calls, you don’t make sales. At the end of the day, DeMint produced a net gain.

Perhaps Republicans did trade a larger number of boring, moderate Republicans for a smaller cadre of interesting and inspiring conservative senators.

It’s a question of quality over quantity.

In the wake of O’Donnell/Angle and then Akin/Mourdock, I do hope conservatives learn a lesson regarding vetting candidates to support. Commitment to ideological purity is a fine litmus test, but seriousness and competence should also part of the equation. But this is hindsight. DeMint was learning on the job. And as anyone who has ever drafted a quarterback will tell you, not every seed a Johnny Appleseed sows will reap fruit.

DeMint’s contributions may pay dividends for years to come. It may end up that DeMint has, in fact, laid the groundwork for the future of the GOP.

We may some day thank DeMint for President Rubio. The point is, like the French Revolution, when determining the significance of DeMint’s legacy — it may still be too early to say.

Douthat continues,

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 that moving from the Senate to the world of think tank fund-raising (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.

The assumption is that DeMint will ignore policy, and instead, turn the Heritage Foundation into a mere political operation. This, I suppose, is possible, but it’s also possible that DeMint is looking for a new challenge. It is entirely possible that he will serve as a sort of CEO, who oversees Heritage’s broad vision, while giving scholars and conservative intellectuals leeway explore creative conservative solutions.

To be sure, DeMint’s move to Heritage isn’t an obvious segue. And replacing the head of a large organization is never easy. But give them credit for shaking things up. We see this sort of thing happen in other realms all the time. Tebow’s move to New York seemed odd (and didn’t work out,) but it’s not like LeBron’s move to Miami — where he would have to share the spotlight — was automatically destined to succeed (so far, it has.)

Douthat continues,

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 Partiers 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 country’s working class. Neither the Reagan legacy nor the current conservative catechism holds the solutions to these problems; they require Republicans to apply their principles more creatively, and think about policy anew.

Douthat, I think, nails it here. Keep in mind, Democrats had to go through some time in the wilderness before Barack Obama took them into the promised land. It wasn’t always pretty, either (remember Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore?). But it was necessary.

The way to judge Jim DeMint’s legacy is not to view it in isolation, but rather, to view it as in a sort of gestalt context. Different leaders play different roles in the conservative movement.

It has always been that way. Buckley was the thinker, Weyrich and Schlafly were the activists, Bob Novak was the reporter, Reagan was the politician — but all played vital roles.

Jim DeMint may well have a final chapter. But, for now, it seems clear that his most lasting legacy as a senator will be in identifying and supporting a new generation of inspiring and young conservative leaders. When you think of it, that’s something to be proud of.

Matt K. Lewis