Jacob Heilbrunn

The Heritage Foundation and Jim DeMint

With his decision to retire from the Senate and join the Heritage Foundation as its new president, Jim DeMint has created a minor furor in Washington. Is he simply cashing in for the $1 million salary? Is he going to launch a new crusade from the precincts of Heritage to protect America's free market heritage? Does he believe that more influence can be waged upon the Republican party from without than within? Is his decision another sign that the conservative movement in turmoil?

Why not all of the above? The GOP didn't just lose the election but also its bearings. It has no coherent program for opposing President Obama—no concept for taxes or debt or immigration or even foreign affairs, other than to say that Obama is a bungler. At a moment when the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.7 percent and Obama's hand has again been strengthened in negotiating with the GOP, it's not a message that will appeal to any but the already-converted. The GOP is a party that's in search of a renewed political program, or at least it should be. The process of an agonizing reappraisal is in its infancy.

DeMint's decision is part of that process. He has drawn the logical conclusion from his tenure in the Senate, which is to say that he has never really been much interested in governing but, rather, in going on the barricades. The Senate may be moving in the opposite direction under the pressure to reach a deal on taxes and the budget deficit. DeMint's resignation points to the difficulty that the Tea Party has faced, and continues to face, in championing small government. It has no real substantive program to effect change and many of the candidates that DeMint backed, such as the loopy Sharron Angle, turned out to be unelectable.

As president of Heritage, DeMint will surely be in a stronger position to influence the direction of debate about the direction the conservative movement should follow. He's saying that the conservative movement needs to detach itself from the Republican party. Fine. But what new ideas will the movement espouse? Last evening I attended a discussion hosted by the conservative Claremont Institute at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington on the aftermath of the election. Claremont regularly holds such meetings to try to fructify thought on the right. This time the mood was pensive. Brian Kennedy, the head of the Institute, asked whether the American public was "deeply confused—or not so confused" about what was at stake. Has the public, he asked, begun to repudiate conservative principles? William Voegeli referred to "our time of affliction," suggesting that America was beginning to catch up to Europe in its spending habits. And Charles Kessler joked that "you begin to get the idea that somebody out there doesn't like us." Still, perhaps Obama's victory wasn't all that sweeping, it was suggested, since Republicans had retained the House of Representatives and won the lion's share of governorships.

My guess is that the Claremont folks would be receptive to what DeMint represents and that they, too, believe that moving the GOP to the right will offer a viable program, particularly in the economic sphere, to attract fresh voters. He will have to revive Heritage as well. Heritage's boom years were during the Reagan era when conservatism genuinely seemed like an insurgent movement. After decades of liberal dominance, a new breed of western conservative moved into Washington. With its Mandate for Leadership tomes and close connections with Reagan officials, Heritage was the it girl of think-tanks. Some of that luster has worn off as it retreated to pumping out position papers for Congress.

Still, it would be unfair to say that Heritage was ever a fount of intellectual ideas and that DeMint represents a lowering of the tone. He doesn't. He may take Heritage back to its roots—back to what Reagan once called that "feisty new kid on the conservative block." The latest chapter in the saga of the conservative movement, which has played such a profound role in reshaping America over the past few decades, is yet to be written. Whether it will be a script that attracts a new and attentive audience is an open question.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.