by Jules Witcover
In a profession like politics and in a town like the nation's capital, the phenomenon of a U.S. senator voluntarily surrendering his seat for a think-tank job would have been unthinkable some years ago.
The decision of Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus and darling of true-believing ultraconservatives, to chuck his Senate seat during his second six-year term is a measure of the growing influence of outside pressure groups on the inside workings of the legislative branch.
DeMint's move to the leadership of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative powerhouse rivaling the American Enterprise Institute on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left, signals a personal effort to raise his own clout beyond his very limited success as a legislator.
As a career marketer and publicist before entering the Senate, DeMint has used the Senate essentially as a pitchman for contrarian views that have hindered the public acceptance of the Republican Party as much as advancing his small government, inward-looking agenda.
His main legislative achievement, according to one report, was getting the courthouse in Greenville, S.C., named after a former governor and fellow conservative, Carroll Campbell. DeMint never was known as a heavy lifter in the gritty work of the Senate, but more of a cheerleader for the naysayers in his party.
As a tea party champion, DeMint helped orchestrate the Senate elections of Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida. But he also fashioned primary-election victories for like-minded conservatives such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, all of whom went down to defeat in their general election campaigns.
In surprising his colleagues with his decision to leave the Senate next month, DeMint said he was driven to seize the lucrative outside megaphone "at a time the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas." But he never was considered much of an original or deep thinker in the Senate, instead often regarded by the party leadership as an irritant.
DeMint assured his faithful followers that "in leaving the Senate I'm not leaving the fight." When asked on the air by commentator Rush Limbaugh whether he was somehow being forced out by House Speaker John Boehner, who has had his hands full with uncooperative tea-partyers, DeMint replied: "It might work a little bit the other way."
The South Carolinian's decision may reflect personal frustration with his ability to move his party more to the right in the Senate. But it also highlights the growing influence of outside voices like Limbaugh and ultraconservative radio and television commentators and supposedly independent super-PACs in shaping public opinion on right-wing causes.
In a political world increasingly driven by big money, conservative Republican-leaning groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have until fairly recently led the way as aggressive generators of intellectual content. But effectively selling their ideas to a broader constituency has been another matter. For all of DeMint's talk of waging "the battle of ideas," his prime contribution in changing hats may be as a salesman, not a philosopher.
His ability to promote conservative views and to find candidates to convert them into primary election victories did not find a comfortable home in the Senate. For that reason, DeMint's departure to fight his tea-party battles outside the Capitol Hill halls of power may not be an entirely unwelcome development for fellow Republicans left behind who are still hopeful of returning to serious legislating.
Unfortunately, going out the door with him will be such moderate GOP senators as Richard Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, diminishing the party's already limited voice in pursuit of the art of compromise. Snowe, like DeMint, is leaving by choice, apparently out of a different kind of frustration, borne of a lack of bipartisanship that never has entered into his political equation.
So on the Democratic side of the Senate as well as some on the Republican side, it's probably going to be: "So long, Jim, don't let the door hit you on the way out."