Fiscal Conservative's Star Rises in Senate Bid
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page A05
In a state that has lost more than 57,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, many to foreign competition, a resolute message on free trade might be considered problematic for a political candidate.
In the ninth-poorest state in the nation, a candidate who openly worries that the poor are not paying enough taxes could be expected to face a stiff political head wind.
In a state where an already substantial retiree population will surge 19 percent this decade, a politician championing one of the most dramatic Social Security privatization proposals in Washington could expect some problems.
But that politician, Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), has not only gained stature in his quest for the Republican nomination to represent South Carolina in the Senate. He is also now seen by many Republicans as the party's best shot at snatching that seat from the Democrats in November, when its occupant, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, retires.
When DeMint faces former governor David Beasley on Tuesday in a runoff for the GOP nomination, he carries with him the hopes of ardent economic conservatives in Washington, who see the three-term congressman as a potential champion. If DeMint triumphs in November, his supporters say, he would embolden all conservatives to push for dramatic changes in Social Security and tax laws, while holding firm on free trade.
"There's a lot of excitement for DeMint," said economist Dan Mitchell of the conservative Heritage Foundation, "because he's not only someone who believes in individual freedoms and the free market, but he would actually fight for them. That's what's missing on Capitol Hill."
The conservative Club for Growth has pumped $500,000 into DeMint's quest for the nomination, and has pledged to make him a national figure if he prevails.
"This election is about more than Jim DeMint," said Stephen Moore, the political action committee's president. "It's about these core issues of the Republican Party."
But South Carolinians may see the race differently, largely because hardly any of them know of DeMint's unorthodox views, said Neal D. Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University, in Florence, S.C. "He comes across as competent and steady, but he's no maverick," said Thigpen, a longtime watcher of South Carolina politics, who had no idea of DeMint's views on taxes and Social Security. "That's not what he's selling, and it's certainly not the way he's perceived."
And DeMint appears to be doing his best to keep it that way.
"That's not an argument I'm going to win on the campaign trail," he said of his ideas on taxes.
DeMint's supporters concede his economic views fly in the face of what Moore called South Carolina "stereotypes." The Palmetto State -- especially its flagging textile industry -- has been buffeted by the globalizing world economy. Since President Bush took office, 57,100 manufacturing jobs have been lost, and most of the state's politicians -- Beasley included -- have adopted stern rhetoric on what they see as unfair international competition and weak trade agreements.
"The trade issue is not a theory. It's not a scenario. It's a real deal that's happening to jobs in this state," said Beasley spokesman Hogan Gidley, mocking what he said was DeMint's academic approach to the issue. "Under Governor Beasley, we were No. 1 in job growth. Now we're No. 1 in job loss."
DeMint is unfazed by the criticism. "Here in South Carolina, the facts are, our economy is growing on the strength of our exports," he said in an interview, "and manufacturing is coming back as we open up markets around the world. When I get a chance to talk to people more than 10 seconds, I can convince them what my opponent's trying to do is raise the price of everything they buy and close plants around the state that are in the export market."
The retiree population along South Carolina's coastline is surging, bringing in elderly voters who have traditionally opposed dramatic changes to Social Security. But DeMint has pushed one of the most dramatic, a plan that would allow workers to divert as much as 8 percent of their earnings, or three-quarters of their Social Security taxes, to private accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. Bush has also embraced private accounts, but much more modest ones, capped at about 2 percent of earnings.
But DeMint's position on taxes may be his most unorthodox, and the most invisible to his would-be voters, suggested Robert Botsch, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. In speeches and interviews in Washington, DeMint has lamented what he calls "an eleventh-hour crisis in our democracy" -- that many of the beneficiaries of federal social welfare largesse pay little or no federal income taxes.
"How can a free nation survive when a majority of its citizens, now dependent on government services, no longer have the incentive to restrain the growth of government?" he asked during a Heritage Foundation lecture in 2001. His prescription? "We must have a new tax code that allows all voters to see and feel the cost of government," he counseled. "Using the tax code to help low-income workers only disconnects them from the responsibilities of freedom."
DeMint said he is not really calling for raising taxes on the poor. He has suggested replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax that all consumers would feel, then refunding part of the sales tax payments to help those in poverty. At least the poor "would still see the cost of government," he said.
But under such a plan, those just above the poverty line likely would see a substantial tax increase. That might not go over well in South Carolina, where nearly a third of the population lives on incomes twice the poverty level or less.
So far, DeMint has not pushed the issue. "It's an intellectual argument, and political reporters don't want to talk about substance," he said. "They'd just say DeMint wants to make the poor pay more taxes."
And, he said, if he wins the nomination, he is not likely to bring it up against his Democratic challenger, state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company