Jacquelyn Martin

So Jim DeMint (R-Planet Tea Party) is leaving the Senate to join the Heritage Foundation. He says he’s going to be able to do a better job enabling conservatives to take “control of our message and our ideas” and communicating them “directly to the American people.”

This is dispiriting news for those who hope Republicans respond to the 2012 election by rethinking their views on everything from social issues to the proper role of government in protecting people from the excesses of the free market to the demagoguery around things like the debt ceiling and the misguided balanced budget amendment.

DeMint had already transformed his Senate office into something akin to a grassroots operation. He supported many hard right primary challengers to establishment Republicans, and produced some winners, such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, but he also backed unhinged losers such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, costing his party seats. He has been one of the most active forces in the Senate against moderation and compromise. Take, for instance, an issue that’s very much in the news right now: The debt limit. During the last debt ceiling crisis, DeMint threw his political operation into gear to pressure Republicans to agree not to support any debt ceiling hike without first passing a balanced budget amendment, a terrible idea that would render governing far harder.

Indeed, DeMint was so ideologically committed to preventing a debt ceiling hike that he openly acknowledged that he’d be willing to tolerate “serious disruptions” in the economy to force ever deeper spending cuts.

Or take Obamacare. DeMint, you’ll recall was the one who first argued that defeating Obama’s health reform bill would be his “Waterloo,” setting the tone for what became a scorched earth campaign by Republicans to render Obama a one-term president by denying him bipartisan cooperation on everything, regardless of merit.

This is the guy who will now be playing a major think tank role rethinking the future of conservatism — or not rethinking it, as the case may be.

It seems perfectly possible that DeMint’s new post could put him in an even better position than before to enforce ideological purity on Republican candidates — including in the House — who would otherwise be inclined towards moderation, balance, and compromise to toe the Tea Party line. This is the sort of thing that risks discouraging moderates from running for office. From the point of view of those who want a functioning opposition party that doesn’t interpret its electoral failures as a sign that it needs to do even less to moderate its current brand of conservatism, DeMint will be able to inflict as much damage on our politics, and possibly more, than he already has.