DeMint and the Culture of Washington

The reaction to Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate to the Heritage Foundation has been proportional to one’s distance from the Beltway and involvement with the political and media culture of Washington, DC.Conservatives are overjoyed. In the Acela Corridor, the reaction was shock that anyone would leave the Senate under any circumstances (other than feet-first).

Those in this first category don’t understand what DeMint grasped the day he got there: the Senate is broken, and the my-honorable-friend culture there is destructive, false, and ultimately doomed. It’s why he showed little inclination to please the D.C. media, or to seek out the “strange new respect” headlines that come when Republicans walk back their principles. He was never going to play the game in the Senate to advance a legislative career. (The phrase “legislative career” is gagworthy, but all too common an aspiration.)

The snide response to his departure from many of the Squish Caucus speaks volumes about the mutual contempt between DeMint and themselves.

Then there are those who desperately want to discredit the unmediated, post-institutional electoral power DeMint yielded with the Senate Conservatives’ Fund. Yes, he fell short with a number of candidates, but his batting average was strong enough to help bring us Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Kelly Ayotte, and others who now comprise a more agile, more articulate, and more conservative generation in the Senate. These folks are disruptors who sing from the heart when it comes to conservative principles.

Jim DeMint’s decision was that of a man who knows he must move from one point of leverage to the next if he is going to advance the conservative agenda. DeMint helped recruit and support a cohort of conservative stars in the Senate … in several cases in direct opposition to the NRSC and the D.C. political class.

For the last 20 years, Republicans have lost the D.C. deal-making game more times than they’ve won. The moment they start wondering how they’ll look in the New York Times editorial pages they enter into a kind of masochistic trance, almost welcoming the abuse and ridicule. The moment they fall in to the trap of wanting to be seen as bipartisan statesmen is the moment the Democrats smile behind their hands and send for the torturers. DeMint never did, and for that he deserves credit.

In a note about Heritage’s brand and reputation, there’s been a bit of muttering on our side that Heritage will lose its reputation as an intellectual powerhouse on the right. I think they’re largely off-base. Heritage earned their reputation the hard way: by decades of being a conservative policy shop and as a counterweight to the DC conventional policy wisdom.

Two observations: first, the era of the pure conservative think tank is ending. They were an artifact of a time where institutional and media friction restricted the ability of conservative ideas to enter the public discourse. That’s over. The kinds of things Heritage does are vital, but not longer sufficient just as academic exercises.

Liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress were made, as Sauron made the Orcs, in mockery of Heritage, AEI, et al. But they did get one thing right: they apply their intellectual horsepower to the liberal and Democratic war efforts. They wage unrestricted ideological warfare across the full spectrum of power.

DeMint clearly gets that, and I expect both the Democrats and his detractors in Congress will find Jim DeMint on the outside even less comfortable for them than Jim DeMint on the inside.