Jim DeMint: Exit, stage right
Perhaps Jim DeMint, in his new role as a conservative think-tanker, will wind up polluting the political climate far more than he already has. But for the moment, at least, it's deeply satisfying that the poster child for U.S. Senate dysfunction is suddenly quitting the chamber.
The junior senator from South Carolina, who announced his imminent departure yesterday, has been a one-man wrecking crew, a polarizing figure who has embodied the party of No, who has typically made it impossible for senators to find common ground and accomplish anything of substance. As one Washington observer remarked, upon hearing the great news about DeMint, "(His) entire style of conservatism is all-or-nothing, no compromise....I am sure many senators on both sides are clicking their heels. DeMint has been a destructive force, threatening to (line up primary challengers against his) colleagues, resisting all deals and offering very little in the way of attainable legislation. He has contributed more than any current senator to the dysfunction of that body." So wrote blogger Jennifer Rubin, a prominent conservative.
Not surprisingly, of course, Rubin's attack on DeMint has prompted some of her brethren to turn the guns on her. To wit, this tidy tweet from talk-show host Mark Levin: "Go to hell, Jennifer Rubin."
Such is the fratricidal mood among conservatives as they continue to grapple with the reality of the election results. Skirmishes and shakeouts abound. I only have time for the highlights.
House Speaker John Boehner has booted some tea-party conservatives from their plum committee jobs, citing their lack of party discipline. FreedomWorks, the fake "grassroots" tea-party outfit bankrolled by the Koch Brothers, has retaliated by attacking Boehner for being a sellout (fake politician Sarah Palin has attacked Boehner as well). FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey has quit his job in a huff, taking an $8-million settlement, because he's ticked off that president Matt Kibbe was more interested this fall in writing a book than mobilizing voters. Fox News chief Roger Ailes is barring Karl Rove and Dick Morris from the air unless producers get his special permission. Talking head William Kristol continues to attack anti-tax commissar Grover Norquist, a growing list of Republican lawmakers have been whacking Norquist like a pinata, and on Wednesday, Sean Hannity got into a Fox News tiff with Ann Coulter, after Coulter (of all people) suggested that Republicans should cave to President Obama and agree to raise taxes on the rich. Hannity, on the cusp of head detonation, said, "You're saying capitulate to Obama?" Whereupon Coulter replied: "We lost the election, Sean!"
And DeMint's decision to quit his seat — with four years remaining in his second term, to join the Heritage Foundation — is arguably the most important shakeout. Just days ago, he was still in character, defending the indefensible (no tax hikes on the rich), attacking Boehner for even considering the notion of finding common ground with Obama on the need for more revenues. But clearly he had come to decide that it was time to move on. Not only did Obama win re-election (the latest margin is 4.67 million votes; so much for DeMint's 2009 declaration that Obamacare could be the president's "Waterloo"), but the Democrats also picked up two seats in the Senate, driving the GOP deeper into the minority. So it was an opportune time to quit and go work for a lot more money at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
Republican leaders are glad to see him go. After all, DeMint is one of the big reasons why Democrats still control the Senate. In his search for purist right-wing candidates, and in his willingness to bankroll them via his PAC, DeMint screwed the party establishment in 2010 and 2012 by backing extreme conservatives who wound up losing winnable Senate seats: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Richard Mourdock in Indiana. This year, he also did his darndest for Todd Akin, the Missouri extremist. After Akin made himself a national laughingstock by insisting that the victims of "legitimate rape" can will themselves not to become pregnant, DeMint came to the rescue with 90 grand and urged other "freedom-loving Americans" to do the same.
Remember, this is the same guy who declared, during the summer '11 debt ceiling crisis, that he was willing to risk default and "serious disruptions" in the economy, in order to force draconian cuts in domestic social programs; who last year sought a provison that would've barred women and their doctors from discussing abortion via Internet tele-conferencing; who insists that "an unmarried woman who's sleeping with her boyfriend" is not fit to teach in a public school...the list goes on.
But the happy news of his departure is tempered by the legacy he leaves behind. In the words of one press report, "there are plenty of junior lawmakers who are willing to use the guerrilla tactics that DeMint employed frequently." And once DeMint is ensconced at the Heritage Foundation, he'll have a big megaphone for his absolutism. In other words, his decision to quit the Senate is not a harbinger of a new era of comity and GOP moderation. Quite the opposite. The vigorous, and at times vicious, intramural struggle for the party's soul has only just begun.
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