Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is leaving Congress in January to lead the Heritage Foundation according to reports on December 6, 2012. (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)

Jim DeMint stunned the political world Thursday by announcing he was stepping down from the Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation.

Political scribes rushed to explain why a man seen as the tea party’s patron saint would vacate his powerful perch inside the Senate to head a think tank, typically home to retired or defeated politicians. As David Freedlander wrote in the Daily Beast, “DeMint pulled off a move many lawmakers would have considered laughable: leaving elected office—for a think tank no less!—because the gig isn’t powerful enough.”

At first, I was surprised at the news too, and almost, in a way, disheartened by it. Not because I identify much with DeMint’s politics, but because of what it seemed to say about the increasing power of outside influences on our political process and, in an era of Congressional dysfunction, the declining clout of the political leaders people actually elect.

Wasn’t there a time when it would have seemed crazy for someone to say, as DeMint did, “leaving the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation is a big promotion?” Isn’t the shaping and forming of the laws of the United States the best way for a leader to wield power? Isn’t it more powerful to be on the inside making changes than on the outside looking in?

But DeMint was never that kind of senator. If anything, he was known as a lover of filibusters, blocker of bills and an instigator of confrontation rather than policy. According to Politico, he has no major laws to his name and was never part of major negotiations between the two parties. Instead, he played the role of firebrand and kingmaker, pushing the party ever rightward and supporting such GOP up-and-comers as Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey and Ted Cruz.

It’s certainly possible that some of those acolytes will take up the charge and focus more on the battle than the deal. I highly doubt the departure of one man will change the tone or the utter dysfunction of the upper chamber. But as long as Congress is at least designed to pass legislation, broker agreements and compromise with each other on the laws that govern the future of this country, we need more leaders on the inside driven by results for the common good rather than the goals of one party.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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