09.27.10

Palin's Secret Rival

Jim DeMint, now shutting down the Senate, is a prickly guy not beloved in Washington. But his Tea Party street cred makes him a serious alternative to Palin in 2012.

Senator Jim DeMint is  shutting down the Senate by vowing to block all legislation that isn’t “hotlined” by tonight. The Senate is set to adjourn on Wednesday or Thursday; typically, a slew of bills that were put off until the end of the legislative session are passed by “hotlining,” a process in which they are sent out to all senators’ offices, and if no one complains, they pass by unanimous consent. Other senators have requested that the Senate allow more time for senators to consider the bills; however, DeMint is the only one to actually demand it and hold the whole legislative process hostage. The Senate will not be able to take up the bills again until the lame-duck session after November’s election.

Plus, Reihan Salam on how his Tea Party cred makes him a serious alternative to Palin in 2012.

Last year, during a conference call with conservative activists, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina raised the rhetorical stakes of the fight against President Obama’s health-reform effort. “If we are able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” a martial analogy that delighted the president’s left-of-center allies as a sure sign of right-wing overreach. At the time, moderate Republicans, and particularly moderate Republicans in swing states that had voted for President Obama in 2008, fretted about Senator DeMint’s tone, fearing that it was the death-rattle of a political party that was in danger of being reduced to a regional rump.

Yet in the intervening months, DeMint has emerged as one of the fiercest, most effective champions of the Tea Party movement that has been roiling Republican primaries. While the national media fixates on Sarah Palin as the face of the Republican right, it is far easier to imagine DeMint emerging as a hard-edged Republican presidential nominee.

As the architect of the Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint has battled the National Republican Senatorial Committee throughout primary season, channeling campaign contributions and enthusiasm toward a select handful of populist candidates running against establishment Republicans. And in race after race—in Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, and Delaware—DeMint’s preferred candidate has secured the Republican nomination. DeMint hasn’t always succeeded, but he has managed to build a powerful brand among grassroots conservatives across the country.

With each passing month, DeMint-approved Tea Party candidates have grown stronger. One gets the strong impression that Republican moderates who did survive primary season, like Mark Kirk of Illinois or Carly Fiorina of California, would not have fared as well had they been running in today’s environment. DeMint made a bet on the strength and seriousness of the Tea Party movement, and the bet has paid off.

As a quasi-politician, Palin makes statements that attract the attention of millions. As an unsuccessful presidential candidate, in contrast, she’d risk fading into obscurity.

The only candidate who matches DeMint’s appeal to the Tea Party right is Sarah Palin, and she has a number of vulnerabilities. Consider that while Sarah Palin is greatly admired by Republican voters, that admiration doesn’t always translate into political support. A September survey from Public Policy Polling found that an extraordinary 66 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former governor. But only 17 percent of Republicans name her as their preferred presidential candidate, behind Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich.

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This, of course, could be turned around after months of vigorous campaigning. But Palin has good reasons not to run for the presidency. Her post-gubernatorial career has demonstrated that there is a profitable niche for a populist tribune who maintains a distance from nuts-and-bolts policymaking. Palin’s core message is cultural, one that centers on restoring America’s lost virtues. Were Palin to run for the White House, she’d risk jeopardizing an influential role that bridges the worlds of politics and entertainment. As a quasi-politician, Palin makes statements that attract the attention of millions, fans and foes alike, and she’s accorded deference from virtually all Republican politicians. As an unsuccessful presidential candidate, in contrast, she’d risk fading into obscurity. So while Palin has every reason to keep us guessing between now and Iowa, she may well become a kingmaker rather than a candidate.

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Of the potential Republican candidates on offer, DeMint comes closest to filling the Palin vacuum. Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi, is a staunch conservative, but he’s also a creature of the Beltway who made a fortune as a corporate lobbyist. Mitch Daniels, the much-admired governor of Indiana, might be too much of a cerebral wonk for Palin, and his emphasis on economic over social issues might pose a problem with activists. Mike Huckabee has the right populist tone, but he’s also identified with a strain of big government conservatism that Palin finds deeply distasteful. Palin and DeMint have clashed in the past—they’ve endorsed different candidates in a number of races, including the Senate primaries in Colorado and California—and DeMint, with a reputation as a prickly and unpleasant character, is disliked by many of his colleagues. But he appreciates Palin’s popularity among rank-and-file Republicans, and their worldviews are an almost perfect match.

During a recent interview with Fox News, DeMint said that he has no intention to run. He also said, “but I don’t want to think past 2010 right now,” which makes perfect sense. More than any other senator not running for re-election, DeMint has invested his credibility and his resources in key races across the country. If his candidates perform better than expected, expect DeMint to make a move.

Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.