Sen. Jim DeMint, stalwart conservative and Tea Party darling, has bitterly criticized ObamaCare and the individual mandate. He has argued that its repeal is “vital to the future of our nation and the health of our people. ObamaCare will raise health costs, reduce choices, ration care, hike taxes, cut jobs, increase the national debt, and put bureaucrats between patients and their doctors.” He has vigorously supported the constitutional challenge to the individual mandate. His own health-care plan repudiated the individual-mandate approach:

No American should be forced into a government-run system that limits their choices and rations their care. Democrats’ answer to every crisis is more and more government, but there is a better way that puts patients first, not bureaucrats. By giving all Americans choice and access to the same tax benefits we give to people through their employers, we can cover more uninsured Americans than the Democrat plan, in half the time, and at no additional cost to taxpayers.

It is that sort of no-nonsense, principled conservatism that has made him a favorite among the staunchest Tea Party activists. But wait, now he’s saying, in essence, that’s no big deal. The Hill reports:

“One of the reasons I endorsed Romney [in 2008] is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), a GOP kingmaker.

DeMint blames Democrats in the Massachusetts State Legislature for adding many of the features to Romney’s plan that many on the right decry.

“It just depends on how he plays it. For me, I think he started with some good ideas that were essentially hijacked by the Democrat Legislature,” DeMint said.

This is hooey on stilts, of course. The core concept of RomneyCare is the same as ObamaCare, namely the government mandate to buy health-care insurance. That was Romney’s idea, not the Massachusetts state legislators.

Several years before she came to The Post, Karen Tumulty wrote one of the definitive pieces on RomneyCare. She reported in 2007:

“He was incredibly impressive, with his intellect, his ability,” says MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber, a Democrat who advised Romney and who has since had a hand in the Massachusetts-style health-care plans put forward this year by Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. . . . Gruber ran the numbers at MIT: universal coverage would be expensive, but so would any half-measure. Romney could simply expand the existing system and, by doing so, cover about one-third more people. Or he could cover everyone by including an “individual mandate,” a controversial measure requiring people to buy insurance and offering subsidies to those who couldn’t afford it. The price tag would be about one-third higher. “I began by saying, Well, maybe we could help half the people that don’t have insurance, maybe we could help a third of the people, and ultimately it became, You know what? We could actually get everybody insured!” Romney recalls.

Yes, it’s true that Democrats added many bells and whistles. But sharp conservatives understand that this is a central argument against starting massive entitlement programs — they soon outstrip revenue, increase cost, and become a Christmas tree on which to hang every bobble liberal lawmakers and their constituents should dream up.

So has DeMint suddenly decided to make peace with the individual mandate? Perhaps, but that would be a monumental and abrupt shift in his thinking. No, this is pure, opportunistic politics. It’s the sort of thing DeMint normally decries, to the cheers of his base. But Romney backed DeMint and now DeMint is giving Romney cover.

That’s unsurprising in politics, but it’s a major problem for a pol who has carved his identity on principled opposition to nearly every compromise with the left. For DeMint to give Romney a pass on an individual mandate negotiated with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy is a high-risk proposition for DeMint.

His backers and the Republican base more generally are not going to buy the excuse DeMint has offered on RomneyCare. Romney is going to be savaged by the right, and from those very people who have given DeMint his base of support. So the question for DeMint is: Is he willing to risk his own conservative street cred to support a candidate who will be the target of his base’s ire?

UPDATE (1:21 p.m.): Phil Klein at American Spectator has more.