Before Jim DeMint ran the Heritage Foundation, he was the top conservative kingmaker in Congress. Ousted from his think tank perch, now is a good time to review the state of the larger DeMint project: pulling the Republican Party rightward.
"I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters," DeMint, then a Republican senator from South Carolina, said during the Tea Party's prime. He did his part to make it happen, when his Senate Conservatives Fund helped elect Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz to serve alongside him, while Specter was replaced with Pat Toomey.
"When I ran for the U.S. Senate two and a half years ago, no one thought I had a chance to win," Rubio said in a statement when DeMint announced he was leaving Capitol Hill. "Jim DeMint was the first person in Washington that believed in me and invested in me, and I'm eternally grateful."
The Republicans' current struggle to get much done even with control of the White House and both houses of Congress reveals the limits of having 30 Rubios or 60 Specters.
It is very difficult to produce the kind of sweeping change principled conservatives want without the kind of large majorities responsible for liberalism's biggest policy victories: the New Deal, the Great Society, even Obamacare.
You can't easily do it on party-line votes with small majorities, like the 52 seats Republicans currently hold in the Senate. You can't do it with 30 senators or a couple dozen members of the House. You can't do it with a handful of constitutional conservatives in the Senate.
When Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., described full repeal as "in essence, a pipe dream from the very start," he wasn't confessing Republican insincerity. He was acknowledging that the system of checks and balances conservatives so often use to restrain liberalism would similarly hamper promised Republican "revolutions"— especially when they have relatively few fighters.
That's the challenge of 30 Rubios. But the GOP's recent difficulties suggest all wouldn't be well with 60 Specters either. Yes, you would have the votes to pass far-reaching legislation. But would you have the political will?
Let's go back once again to the Republicans' Obamacare travails. They don't have anywhere near the votes the Democrats had to pass the healthcare law in the first place. But their House majority is big enough.
There are still persistent claims that as many as 50 Republicans in the House don't want to repeal Obamacare. A vote on a bill that falls far short of full repeal remains a nail-biter.
The Senate seat the Tea Party most obviously cost Republicans is the one held by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. Centrist Republican Mike Castle would certainly have won it. Eccentric conservative candidate Christine O'Donnell never had a chance and lost badly.
If Castle held that seat, he would have voted with conservatives many more times than Coons has. But would he be a sure thing to vote for Obamacare repeal? The odds are just as good that he might have been the deciding vote against it.
DeMint isn't the only conservative who thought purifying the Republican conference would lead to better results. In my own book on rolling back big government, I argued that the key was to contest Republican primaries and nominate constitutional conservatives, in effect making the GOP more of a limited-government party. If not 30 Marco Rubios, maybe 30 Rand Pauls.
But there was a second component to that strategy: these improved Republicans would have to be willing to risk their seats to cut government. Like the Do-Nothing Congress that fought Harry Truman. Or the way the Democrats sacrificed their majorities to pass Obamacare.
That hasn't materialized. The Freedom Caucus members who have played a constructive role in keeping Obamacare repeal alive hail mostly from safe districts. It has been a real battle to get Republicans from swing districts on board.
There is also the simple fact that the argument for a greater government role in healthcare is obvious and intuitive, with the real-world examples of single payer and socialized medicine plentiful in countries with decent living standards. The case for better functioning markets in healthcare is more obscure and has only fitfully been made by conservatives, mostly while trying to defeat some Democratic bill.
It's one example of how the Right, as Daniel McCarthy argues, has "not been adept at advancing conservatism beyond Reagan. It's as if the conservative movement went straight from adolescence to senility."
How many Republicans does it take to repeal Obamacare, much less reverse decades of entrenched big government liberalism? The question may be called DeMint's dilemma.