I got the call before the news went out. Jim DeMint, the standard bearer of the conservative movement in America and conservative king maker, is leaving the United States Senate.
He will succeed Ed Feulner as President of the Heritage Foundation.
While my initial reaction was one of sadness that we are losing the clearest voice in the Senate for conservatives, the upside on Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate is mind boggling. Mitch McConnell likes it when people compare McConnell to Darth Vader, seemingly clueless that Vader lost the Death Star twice to a rag tag group of rebels in really beat up, hand-me-down spaceships.
If McConnell smiles at hearing the news Jim DeMint is leaving the Senate, he should remember Obi Wan Kenobi telling him . . . errrr . . . Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Jim DeMint’s power in the conservative movement just grew exponentially. A man who was going to retire in four years anyway, will now be leading the conservative movement from its base of operations for years to come.
Without Jim DeMint we would most likely not presently have in the United States Senate Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake, Ron Johnson, and Ted Cruz. We would not have a Republican establishment that now worries conservatives might actually primary them.
Without Jim DeMint we would still have a conservative movement that is part and parcel the Republican Party in name, word, and deed. DeMint showed the Republican Party can be challenged from within and that conservatism can be distinctly voiced from within the party moving it right, not moving with it.
On January 3, 2011, Human Events named Jim DeMint the “conservative of the year.” I had the distinct privilege of writing the summation of the honor. I noted, “DeMint???s tenure started out like that of most freshmen congressmen ??? anonymous and committed to bringing home the bacon, much like Rep. Inglis who, when Senator DeMint moved up to the Senate, moved back into his old House seat until the tea party movement threw him out in 2010.”
But during the fight over No Child Left Behind, Jim DeMint got his first real taste of Washington politics and decided he needed to change it. For a time, he teamed up with conservatives in Congress to fight within the GOP and move the party right. But there were not enough of them so he went out and found them.
The Heritage Foundation’s founding is a similar tale. The American Enterprise Institute was the think tank of think tanks in Washington prior to the Heritage Foundation’s founding in 1973. It is nonpartisan, but mostly right of center. In 1964, several top AEI staff including its President, William J. Baroody, Sr., served on the side as policy advisers to Barry Goldwater. That raised the IRS’s eyebrows and, after dealing with the IRS, AEI made in a policy to be center-right (mostly), but very nonpartisan.
By 1973, with Nixon and price controls and the Rockefeller Republicans, the conservative movement was ready to form a decidedly, unapologetically conservative think tank to support the ideas of conservatism through a growing movement of conservatives in Congress. It’s founding and present mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense”. The Heritage Foundation set the stage for Ronald Reagan. Without Heritage, no doubt Reagan could have won. But Reagan’s ideas and policies were incubated in the Heritage Foundation. Heritage was the foundation of the Reagan Revolution.
The three founders of the Heritage Foundation were Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, and Joseph Coors. Since 1977, Ed Feulner has been the Heritage Foundation’s President.
One of the things I have been most fearful of within the conservative movement is the realization that many of the leaders of the movement are hitting retirement age. Some have already passed on to be with their Maker. When I go to many of the off the record conservative meetings I get asked to attend, I see people my parents’ age and older. The Reagan Revolutionaries are retiring or dying.
The present generation knows Reagan from history books, not from living in his America. The up and coming leaders of the Republican Party were kids, not even in high school, when Ronald Reagan was President. Nikki Haley turned 9 the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. Mike Lee was 9 too. Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio were 10. Paul Ryan was 11. Ken Cuccinelli was 12. Scott Walker was 13. I was 5 years old.
The conservative movement, still so attached to Reagan, risks becoming a relic of history as it fails to adapt to the twenty-first century tackling new ideas with its timeless principles. A great many conservative organizations have no succession plan. When their leader dies, the organization withers. All the money, time, and effort that went into the organization fades.
When Ed Feulner started the Heritage Foundation he was 39 years old and still eight years from the Reagan Revolution. He is now just past 70 and the nation is almost a quarter century removed from Ronald Reagan’s last year in office. Unlike many leaders in the conservative movement, Ed Feulner has actually led all the way. He did not pass off his role to be just a figure head. He has been engaged. He kept and is keepingconservatism alive well past Reagan, through reading a lie off George H. W. Bush’s lips, through Bill Clinton’s triangulation, even to now during this superficial revival of American liberalism in politics and popular culture. Like a monk preserving knowledge in the dark ages in a monestary, Ed Feulner turned the Heritage Foundation into a monastery of conservatism making sure the timeless principles of Burke and Kirk and Hayek and Reagan found the intellectual footing to advance philosophy into policy and policy into politics.
More importantly, Ed Feulner did it right. He has not left without making sure his organization could stand without him. In doing so, he made probably the boldest move since his founding ??? aligning an organization many, including myself, have criticized in the past decade as becoming too aligned with the GOP at the expense of conservatism itself and stumbling on health care policy, with the grassroots of the conservative movement. It is a near phoenix like move.
The Heritage Foundation, which more or less arose from the ashes of the Goldwater conservatism that failed in the late sixties, became a key player within institutional establishment Republican politics over the past decade, and now suddenly finds its founder retiring and passing the keys over to the man who has helped restart the conservative movement within the political wing of the GOP in the way Ed Feulner restarted the conservative movement within the intellectual wing of the GOP.
There is no better person to take Ed Feulner’s job. It is a marvelous transition. Ed Feulner knew he was not the indispensable man, but has now made sure the Heritage Foundation remains the indispensable organization within the conservative movement. That is a brilliant legacy.
As for Jim DeMint leaving the United States Senate, it is a very good thing.
The more I think about it, the more I think this is a great thing. Just yesterday, John Hayward noted Jim DeMint may just be the leader of the resistance within the GOP on the fiscal cliff deal. But DeMint has replenished the bench of conservatives within the Senate. As long as he remains there, the new conservatives will be in his shadow.
Jim DeMint is, like Ed Feulner, not indispensable. But his ideas are. It is time for the tea party senators he brought to the Senate to stretch their legs and prove they are Jim DeMint’s ideological heirs. In the meantime, he will be on the outside providing them the support and intellectual ammunition they need.
In June of 2008, one of RedState’s own founders, Ben Domenech, wrote about the conservative seeds of destruction. He opined:
…[I]f conservatism is to have any future, it is as a movement that does not put too much faith in the individuals who claim to espouse shared ideology. Unearned trust begets scandal and betrayal, and the coalition that won in 1980 and 1994 will only survive as a coherent movement in this century if it embraces the reality that conservatism is larger than the politicians who invoke its principles.
Conservatism is larger than Jim DeMint and Ed Feulner. But their shared legacies of expanding conservatism within the intellectual and political framework of the GOP just got stronger and more entrenched because of this bold and brilliant move. The Heritage Foundation Board should be commended for what, at this time in relations between the Republican Party and conservative movement, can honestly be considered a brave and genus move.
In a show of appreciation for Senator Jim DeMint, I encourage you to go donate to the Senate Conservative Fund and send a strong message to him that as he leaves the Senate, you’ll keep the PAC he created electing true conservatives to the United States Senate.
About the only thing that could make this more awesome is if Governor Nikki Haley ensures the Senate’s only black Senator is a conservative Republican who presently represents the congressional district in which Ft. Sumter sits.