last updated: June 20, 2014
Please note: The Militarist Monitor neither represents nor endorses any of the individuals or groups profiled on this site.
- Heritage Foundation: President (2013 – present)
- Senate Conservatives Fund (PAC): Founder, former chairman
- U.S. Senate (R-SC): 2005-2013
- U.S. House of Representatives (R-SC): 1995-2005
- The DeMint Group: Founder, former principal
- University of Tennessee-Knoxville
- Clemson University
Jim DeMint is the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. A Tea Party firebrand known for his adversarial relations with the GOP establishment, DeMint served as a Republican senator from South Carolina before taking over Heritage in 2013. He succeeded longtime Heritage head Ed Feulner, who had led the influential Republican-aligned think tank since 1977.
In Congress, DeMint gained a reputation as a staunch conservative who was willing to buck the GOP leadership. Characterized by the Guardian as “a bit of a troublemaker,” DeMint voted against “major spending programs” under both the Bush and Obama administrations, staunchly opposed any Republican compromise over Obamacare, voted against both the Obama administration’s stimulus package and the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout, and fought the Bush White House over its plans to expand Medicare. A staunch social conservative, DeMint has also consistently opposed abortion and gay rights, once attracting controversy for suggesting that openly gay individuals should banned from teaching in schools.
DeMint was among the earliest congressional champions of the Tea Party movement, leveraging the support of his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC to back right-wing candidates in Republican Senate primaries. In a break with Senate tradition, he backed several candidates who challenged his incumbent Republican colleagues, famously saying he’d rather have a Senate with “35 conservatives” than a moderate Republican majority. “Without DeMint, it is hard to imagine that [Rand] Paul, [Marco] Rubio, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, or Utah's Mike Lee would have ever made it to the Senate,” reported the Guardian in late 2012. “The same is true for Senator-elect Ted Cruz from Texas.”
On Foreign Policy
DeMint is generally hawkish on foreign policy, although he is not closely associated with the GOP’s neoconservative faction.
On several foreign policy issues, in fact, he has evinced a libertarian streak considered anathema to the party’s more hardline hawks. In 2011, for example, he voted to revoke Congress’ authorization of the Iraq War, reversing his previous support for the conflict. He also voted against that year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included a provision allowing the indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens accused of terrorism, and opposed the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya’s civil war without seeking congressional authorization.
DeMint has also spoken out against maintaining a global U.S. military presence, although he has treated it more as a budgetary matter than a political one. “If we spread ourselves too thin around the world, we’re not going to be able to defend the homeland,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “It’s foolish for us to think that we can have military bases all over the world and spend billions of dollars when we’re going broke back home. It just isn’t gonna happen.”
DeMint’s apparent libertarian drift has reportedly influenced some of Heritage’s positions. The year DeMint took over, for example, the think tank decided to spike two papers by a conservative academic arguing that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs were legal and constitutional. “It was a surprising move for a think tank that has supported extension of the Patriot Act—which authorizes some of NSA's activities—and has long been associated with right-of-center positions on national security and foreign policy,” noted Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris. Reporting that the papers’ conclusions “did not sit well with DeMint,” Harris added, “sources who would not speak on the record strongly implied that it was his call” to reject them.
Heritage’s rejection of the papers, which were later published by the more centrist Brookings Institution, infuriated some foreign policy hawks. “It speaks volumes that a generally center-left think tank will publish the important scholarly contributions of a conservative attorney on a key national security matter, but Heritage will not,” complained neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who added that the think tank “is suffering a grievous slide in intellectual integrity and influence” under DeMint. “Apparently the new anti-surveillance isolationist bug is too inviting to Heritage to undermine with actual scholarship,” she quipped.
On other foreign policy issues, however, DeMint has fallen in line with the hawks. In 2009, for example, he complained about the impression that “we’re afraid to use the military” against Iran. “In Iran they have free reign,” he continued. “They hear talk of American ‘engagement’ with Iran and see it as weakness. They hear: America needs something from them.” Musing that the United States could pressure Iran through a variety of new sanctions, DeMint said that “If the rest of free world does not seriously pressure Iran, we are basically telling Israel it has to go alone,” presumably militarily. He added that he had “told AIPAC to play hardball on this kind of issue.” DeMint subsequently supported every major piece of Iran sanctions legislation while a member of Congress.
DeMint echoed similar sentiments about Russia after its 2014 intervention in Ukraine’s civil crisis and annexation of Crimea. “Russia tested us years ago in Georgia,” he claimed. "They saw we didn't respond. Now, they're testing us even further. So, Putin understands strength, not diplomacy.” The Russians, DeMint said, “don't think America will act, and that is a very destabilizing force, not only in the Ukraine, but throughout the world.”
DeMint has also embraced the traditional Cold War-era cause of “missile defense,” urging the United States to develop expensive and provocative systems to undermine the nuclear deterrents of its rivals, particularly Russia. In the same vein, he opposed the New START arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow. In an address to the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, a successor group to the Project for the New American Century, DeMint reportedly said that “nuclear parity with Russia—the START treaty’s primary assumption—is in no way desirable. … Instead of focusing on parity, the U.S. should concentrate its efforts on building a robust missile defense system.”
DeMint has also been a fierce opponent of progressive governments in Latin America, echoing the rhetoric of many Reagan-era neoconservatives.
For example, after the Obama administration criticized the 2009 coup in Honduras that toppled the populist government of President Manuel Zelaya, DeMint attempted to travel personally to Honduras to express his support for the right-wing coup government. John Kerry, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, subsequently blocked DeMint’s planned “fact-finding” trip to Honduras, but DeMint retaliated by placing holds on the confirmation votes of diplomatic nominees who had also criticized the coup. DeMint accused the Obama administration, which eventually did normalize relations with the new Honduran government, of wanting “to force a Chavez-style dictator back into power,” referring to the democratically elected Zelaya’s friendship with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch critic of U.S. policy in the region.
DeMint waded into Latin American politics again in 2014 when he warned voters in El Salvador not to vote for the country’s leftist candidate for president, Salvador Sachéz Cerén, in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald. “In the op-ed, DeMint might have set a record for mud-slinging,” wrote Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. “According to DeMint, El Salvador under Sánchez Cerén will become a ‘narco state,’ a ‘gang haven,’ a ‘transit point for drugs,’ a ‘money laundering machine,’ and a ‘narco-principality.’ In addition, he warns that the country might join the “anti-American ALBA bloc,’ that Hezbollah could build a presence in El Salvador, and that there could be ties to Colombia’s ‘narco-trafficking terrorist organization, the feared FARC.’ There might even be links to ‘Italy’s Calabrese family,’ a mafia-style crime family.” Many of those overblown charges, Thale noted, had previously been issued by Elliott Abrams, who had helped engineer the Reagan administration’s support for brutal right-wing dictatorships and other “anticommunist” movements in the region.
Conflict with the Republican Establishment
DeMint’s often hostile relationship with Republican leaders made him an odd choice to lead the Heritage Foundation, which had traditionally enjoyed a warm relationship with party elders. According to longtime observers of the think tank, his appointment both encapsulated and accelerated the institution’s drift towards ideological polarization. Under DeMint in particular, Heritage has evinced an increasing willingness to directly challenge congressional Republicans who fail to fall in line through its Heritage Action PAC.
In 2013, for example, the group launched pointed attacks on Republican members of Congress who had balked at taking further votes to defund the Affordable Care Act—a longtime DeMint priority—in a standoff that ultimately led to a partial government shutdown. The shift prompted outrage even from some staunch conservatives, with Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) declaring that Heritage had "lost credibility with the people that were most supportive of them" and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) accusing the think tank of "destroying the Republican Party."
The defund-Obamacare campaign, which came amid a long decline in Heritage's more substantive policy output, also sparked concerns from longtime Heritage loyalists that the group was contributing to the impression that the GOP itself lacked policy heft. Mickey Edwards, a founding trustee of the think tank, complained that the group had become "just another hack Tea Party kind of group" that had turned the conservative "intellectual ferment" into "nothing more than a political platform."
Prior to joining politics, DeMint led an eponymous marketing consultancy called The DeMint Group.
He is also the author of several books, including Falling in Love with American Again (2014); Now or Never: Saving America from Economic Collapse (2012); The Great American Awakening: Two Years that Changed America, Washington, and Me (2011); Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide Into Socialism (2009); and Why We Whisper: Restoring Our Right to Say It's Wrong (2007).