Tea Party icon and borderline fictional character Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate this morning, announcing that he would become the new head of the Heritage Foundation. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley will appoint his replacement, and the balance of votes in the Senate is not likely to change. The balance of weirdness, however, is badly shaken. In an unusually conservative GOP, DeMint was extremely conservative. Earlier this week, he attacked John Boehner’s compromise proposal in the fiscal cliff standoff—which most analysts agreed offered too little revenue to stand a chance at acceptance—for raising revenues too much. Then he resigned.
Exactly why he did that is unclear—why he resigned, I mean. Why he attacked Boehner’s “$800 billion tax hike,” built entirely on closing loopholes and eliminating deductions, is pretty obvious: he was a grandstanding. As the figurehead of a political party that isn’t actually a party whose primary purpose is to yell about how government, the economy and society should work, DeMint doesn’t have to do much else. He gets to vote against laws in the Senate and insist that this country would be much better if only more people were exactly like him. As a junior senator on the fringe of the opposition party, he is almost entirely relieved of the obligation to actually govern with like compromises and policy and stuff.
Why would he leave that? I can only come up with three explanations:
- One of the Senate pages caught him using federal funding for VA hospitals to buy the biggest prostitute you ever saw.
- He has terminal lung cancer and needs to cook as much meth as possible in the next 18 months to support his family.
- The Tea Party is only viable as a commentary/entertainment organization.
In support of item (3), I offer you his remarks on the fiscal cliff, which were as follows:
If neither party leadership is going to put forward a serious plan to balance the budget and pay down the debt, we should end this charade. We can stop the fiscal cliff with the bill that House Republicans already passed that simply extends the current tax rates and replaces the defense cuts with reductions in wasteful spending.
You will recall that the dreaded sequester—the budget part of the fiscal cliff—triggers automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending of $600 billion apiece, for a total of $1.2 trillion in federal spending. Congress apportioned it that way to ensure that both parties would hate it; Republicans don’t want the cuts in defense, and Democrats don’t want the cuts in social programs.
In this context, DeMint’s complaint that neither party has put forth a “serious” plan is hideously hypocritical. His claim that we can avert the sequester by “simply” extending the tax cuts Republicans want and replacing the defense cuts they don’t with “wasteful spending” cuts Democrats don’t want ignores the other party in Congress. It willfully denies the purpose of the sequester in the first place, which was to force Republicans and Democrats to reach a compromise. It’s like saying the Civil War could have been avoided by simply extending slavery to all the states and shipping Abraham Lincoln to the Philippines.
It is some one-party shit, in other words. In the Senate, where things get done by comity and compromise, it is useless. On television or in, say, a conservative think tank—where things get done by boldly finding evidence for positions people already agree with—on the other hand, it is career genius. Having made himself a conspicuously useless legislator for the last decade or so, DeMint is ready to move on to a place where bloviating orthodoxy is both means and end.
Let us hope he takes the rest of the Tea Party with him. I was trying to think of who the other prominent Tea Party senators are, and then to make things easier on myself I opened it up to Tea Party congresspeople, and I wound up with such famously inert legislators as Michele Bachmann and Steve King. The most prominent members of the Tea Party “movement”—begun by the grassroots career lobbyists at FreedomWorks and captained by such lawgivers as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin—are not actually involved in government at all.
DeMint was the most powerful among them, and his ideas rarely saw the Senate floor. Now he has resigned to lead a think tank one degree more serious than the 700 Club. It turns out that in a divided government tasked with representing a diverse and divergent society, radical orthodoxy is not the sharpest tool in the box. Come January, those doing actual work will have to root through one less piece of clutter.