There’s his blustery public persona, and then there’s his decorous manner up close: He’s a fit, young 59, attractive and personable, quick to smile even when pondering the national debt crisis or criticizing the “false hope” of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He asks after children and self-deprecatingly reminisces about the counterculture moustache and “Afro” he sported in high school in the ’60s. People often describe him as reserved, the consummate Southern gentleman. One DeMint adviser says, “On a personal level, he is probably one of the most nonconfrontational guys you’ll ever meet.”
And yet. This is the senator who declared the stimulus package “a mugging” in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. This is the guy who sees little use for moderates in his own party, who announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, shortly after the November midterm elections, that Tea Party Republicans had been elected to “save the country—not be co-opted by the club,” so they’d best put on their “boxing gloves.”
If it were up to DeMint, there would be no Department of Education. Welfare would be phased out, and states, churches, and charities would take care of the poor. DeMint has advocated replacing income taxes with a flat tax or a national sales tax. He voted against George W. Bush’s Wall Street bailout (“One Giant Step toward Socialism” is how he headlined it in one of his books) and against President Obama’s stimulus bill, and he was one of only two senators to oppose Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State.
He has written several call-to-arms books, including 2009’s Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide Into Socialism. In that book, DeMint uses “socialism” as shorthand for countless forms of government spending and blames it for Godlessness, immorality, irresponsibility, and laziness.
In Manchester, during an interview in the university cafeteria, DeMint dismisses the idea of bipartisan compromise. Not now. The country is about to go “over a cliff,” he says, and the Democrats’ vision of “European collectivism” is speeding us toward that fall: “To go out now in this environment and say compromise and work with the other team—it’s like a coach telling players to go work with people who are trying to beat your head in.”
DeMint says that this kind of contentiousness didn’t come easily to him. As he tells it, he had to be dragged by his conscience into this fight. For at least a decade, he has been warning the country that the government is fostering a culture of dependence that could destroy the American way of life.
DeMint says that for his six years in the House, and after he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he tried closed-door persuasion, tried being nice. It didn’t work—his colleagues were too entrenched in a culture of spending and earmarks, in the “self-serving parochial interest that was bilking the federal government, draining it dry.” It was only after the 2006 election, DeMint says, when Republicans lost the Senate, that he realized the stakes were too high and his own party too far off course for him to remain silent.
DeMint often stresses that his Republican colleagues are “good people,” just before ripping into them. He describes many as “friends,” even though by most accounts he doesn’t have lots of friends in Washington these days. “Despite my friendships with a lot of them, despite the fact that they’re good people, they’ve completely lost sight of our constitutional responsibilities,” he says. “And so I set about to replace some of them. I made a lot of people mad.”
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