Machiavelli’s famous advice to politicians is that it is better to be feared than loved. Less often quoted is an equally valuable admonition: avoid being hated.
Jim DeMint, the former senator-turned-Tea Party leader at the helm of the Heritage Foundation, never tried to win the love of the Republican establishment. He did, however, succeed over the past several years, first as the junior senator from South Carolina and since last year, as head of the GOP’s most prominent think tank, at being feared by his fellow Republicans. But now he finds himself in the position of being merely despised.
Just a few months ago, headlines declared DeMint the “shadow speaker” who “pulls the strings” in Washington, and he was credited with almost singlehandedly grinding Washington to a halt. (Including by DeMint, who boasted that he had “more influence now on public policy than I did as an individual senator.”) The real House speaker, Ohio’s John Boehner, couldn’t stop the government shutdown that DeMint and Tea Party groups orchestrated and cheered when they convinced a majority of House Republicans to go along with their defund-Obamacare-or-else strategy last October.
That was then. But ask around Washington now, and you’ll hear that while DeMint is undoubtedly still a Republican power broker (and a high-profile one at that, whose new book, a gauzy tribute to the USA called Falling in Love with America Again, comes out Tuesday just in time for some election-year proselytizing), he no longer strikes fear in establishment Republican hearts. As GOP consultant John Feehery, a veteran Capitol Hill aide who worked for the Republican House leadership, put it, “I don’t go to bed thinking about Jim DeMint.”
“There was a time when Jim DeMint was one of the most feared people on the Republican side,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette, a friend and political ally of the speaker’s, told me. “I don’t think he’s a factor anymore.”
Then again, his newfound irrelevance is a byproduct of his success.
It used to be that starry-eyed new lawmakers arrived in Washington ready to suck up to party leaders, pay their dues, then move up the ranks. Not Jim DeMint. After getting his MBA from Clemson University, DeMint started his own research and marketing firm in Greenville, South Carolina. He got interested in politics after helping a fellow South Carolinian win a congressional seat in 1992. By the time he was elected to the House in 1998, before ascending to the Senate in 2005, DeMint’s politics had grown increasingly conservative.
Many of his GOP colleagues saw his anti-government proposals as politically infeasible and his tactics too confrontational. DeMint wrote legislation to shut down the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Agency. He drafted a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on his fellow members of Congress. He also pushed to term-limit Republican leaders and appropriators’ positions in the Senate, setting up a confrontation he lost badly. And even when he did succeed—in his crusade to ban earmarks, for instance—he butted heads with the Republican leaders who depended on them to dole out favors in the Capitol’s old you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours way of doing business.
When DeMint realized just how opposed his fellow Republicans were to his agenda, he turned his energies to changing the Senate itself. In 2008 he started a political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, now run by his former chief of staff, Matt Hoskins, to support ultra-conservative candidates in Republican primaries. SCF angered DeMint’s colleagues by supporting upstart Tea Party candidates over Republican incumbents. (The group, no longer run directly by DeMint, has gone even more confrontational this year by supporting a Republican primary challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.)
On Nov. 2, 2010, many of DeMint’s picks rode the Tea Party wave into Congress—Florida’s Marco Rubio, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Kentucky’s Rand Paul quickly became high-profile players in the GOP.
But some of DeMint’s chosen did not make it. Christine O’Donnell of Delaware bumped a moderate Republican out of the primary, then went down in history as the woman who stared into a camera and said, “I’m not a witch.” DeMint’s picks in Nevada and Colorado proved similarly unelectable.
In the end, DeMint made the caucus more conservative, but he also helped keep it in the minority. “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters,” he declared.
That was four years ago, but every single Republican interviewed for this article mentioned the line. DeMint made the mistake of saying out loud he’d rather choose ideological purity over winning in a town that worships winners. And no, his fellow Republicans have not gotten over it.“That’s a great soundbite, except it means you will lose every issue every day of the week. You have absolutely no power with only 30 senators,” said Republican consultant Brian Walsh, who spent the 2010 and 2012 cycles working to elect a Republican Senate majority at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Pema Levy is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek.