Our friends at “The Fix” run down the surprise national political news today: the resignation of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. The de facto figurehead of the Tea Party is leaving his Senate seat in order to become the new president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s resignation to take over as the president of the Heritage Foundation stunned the political world on Thursday and, in the process, raised a series of fascinating questions about his future, the Senate and the future of the conservative movement.
“It’s a creative, innovative move, and demonstrative of the newer way of thinking about how to use new tools today to move an agenda, where service in government is just one way, but not the only way, to drive the conversation,” said Eric Ueland, a former Senate chief of staff and now a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group.
That way of thinking marks a sea change from even a decade ago when the idea of DeMint abandoning his relatively prime perch in the Senate – he had built a sort of conservative hub within the GOP conference – to head a think tank (even one that pays as well as Heritage) would have seemed unthinkable.
But, the past decade has shown the influence that figures outside of elected office – Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist to name two – can have on the shape and direction of the conservative movement. Serving in the House or Senate is no longer – in a world of social media, 24 hour cable news heavily focused on politics and online grassroots organizing – the sine qua non for a conservative wanting to push his (or her) ideas on a national level.
There is certainly some truth to the idea that you can be politically influential outside of elected office, but outside of the U.S. Senate? It’s a stretch to think that DeMint can be just as influential, if not moreso, as the head of a think tank. It’s just just specific Constitutional power, either. It is a lot easier to raise money for other candidates or causes when you are a sitting U.S. Senator, and there is significant political power in being able to raise money for others.
As we’ve written about in this space plenty of times, the Republican Party is having a hard time trying to figure out how to “tame” the Tea Party Frankenstein that DeMint helped create in 2010. While DeMint would likely never admit as much, this struggle likely played a significant role in his decision to leave the Senate.
For some politicians, it is easier to move on to something else than to make any public move towards the middle and actual governance.