My colleague Marc Thiessen breaks some news in reporting that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will not be endorsing a Republican presidential candidate in the primary. This is a surprising but understandable recognition (as Bill Kristol did in his own way) that there is no viable not-Romney in the race.
Anyone who expected he might endorse Mitt Romney hasn’t been paying much attention to either the GOP race or DeMint’s role in the Tea Party movement. When DeMint did offer supportive words for Romney, he was beset by angry activists and soon backed off. DeMint is not about to sacrifice his role as a prominent Tea Party leader by endorsing the not-Tea Party candidate, Mitt Romney. DeMint and Romney most likely both know such an endorsement would be worthless in any event. DeMint’s followers wouldn’t follow his lead on this one; Romney supporters and potential supporters are not the type to be swayed by the hard-line DeMint.
The real news here is that DeMint couldn’t find anyone else to back. If he could champion a viable Tea Party type, he certainly wouldn’t hesitate to be kingmaker. But really, who’s he going to back? It’s evident the Herman Cain phenomenon is dissolving. (In his Lincoln-Douglas style debate with Newt Gingrich Saturday, Cain, in passing on the first question about Medicare, once again showed he’s not well-informed enough to be a credible blogger, let alone a presidential candidate.)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was supposed to be the credible Tea Party-friendly alternative to Romney. DeMint’s decision not to give him a hand highlights just how far Perry’s fortunes have fallen. One has to think back to the forum DeMint hosting over Labor Day. Perry had accepted, campaigned in South Carolina and then canceled at the last minute, citing the Texas wildfires, even though DeMint offered to flip the order of speakers and let Perry go first. From hindsight, after a series of dreadful debates, one can surmise that Perry wasn’t all that anxious anyway to be grilled on constitutional issues. But standing up DeMint probably didn’t endear him to the South Carolina senator.
DeMint, like many committed conservatives, apparently doesn’t see a viable alternative to Romney among the remaining candidates. One wonders if DeMint regrets not having run himself. Unlike Perry, he would have been knowledgable on the issues. Unlike Cain, he would have been a polished performer and assembled a professional staff.
There is in his decision not to endorse (and in Kristol’s decision to announce the end of the quest to find the Ronald Reagan candidate of our era) a sense of resignation. If Tea Partyers are disappointed with the choices, they should learn the right lessons. There are two, I think.
First, Tea Partyers and the bloggers and right-wing pundits who encourage them should top pretending that patently absurd candidates are credible. I’m sorry, but Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) are not presidential material. Pretending that they are knowledgable and prepared (or, in Paul’s case, politically sane) only diverts attention from trying to cultivate a legitimate contender. As Ross Douthat explains: “It will do America no good to replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent. In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution.”
If the Tea Party wants electable rock-ribbed conservatives they better find ones who can hack it in the national spotlight. No Sharron Angles. No Christine O’Donnells. The talk show hosts that defend these characters lead conservatives into a dead end.When they lose, the talk show hosts can be aggrieved and blame the media. But conservatives will have enabled Democrats to win.
The second lesson is that if nationally established, Tea Party-friendly candidates — DeMint, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), etc. — won’t run, the Tea Party needs to start developing its bench. Recruit, support and highlight well-spoken and well-informed state and federal figures who satisfy the Tea Party ideologically but don’t fall on their faces under minimal scrutiny.
DeMint’s strategy makes sense for another reason. He told Thiessen, “I think we can raise over $10 million and focus that on five to eight races. And by doing that I know we can change the Senate . . . . Five or eight more like . . . [Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey and Rand Paul] and a Republican president, we can turn our country around . . . . It is really now or never for our country.” In other words, if Mitt Romney is to be the nominee, give the Senate and the House the most effective conservatives possible to help drive the agenda. Notice, too, that two of candidates he identified (Sen. Ron Johnson [R-Wis.] is another ) had to win in diverse states with the help of many Democrats and independents. O’Donnell isn’t on the list because she lost.
The Tea Party altered the trajectory of the Republican Party and the national agenda. If it wants to change the leadership, it’ll need to learn new skills and run smarter, better candidates.