Jim DeMint: Leading the Right's Rebel Brigade

Senator Jim DeMint has harnessed Tea Party populism but infuriated GOP elders. Is he taking the Republican Party toward salvation — or destruction?

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Nigel Parry for TIME

On Nov. 15, a band of tea party activists gathered near the Capitol, waving signs that read "Don't Just Stand There, Undo Something" and "Stop Spending, You Are Stealing MY Future!!!" A guy in a Captain America costume hoisted, for reasons unclear, a giant Marine Corps flag. In the middle of it all stood a man whom the crowd cheered as if he were a conquering hero: South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. And in a way he was. DeMint's early support — sometimes in defiance of the GOP establishment — helped elect several Tea Party candidates, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Now DeMint, 59, was hailing a new political era. "Power has been wrested out of the hands of the politicians and into the hands of the American people," he told the crowd. "Everything has changed here in Washington!"

Later that afternoon, DeMint notched another big win. He had been calling on his fellow Senate Republicans for months to embrace a ban on earmarks — those notorious budget items that lawmakers direct back home for projects of often dubious value. (Think Bridge to Nowhere.) To DeMint, earmarks represent an institutionalized corruption of the way Congress treats taxpayer dollars. But Senate GOP elders, who enjoy spreading money around, didn't see it that way. GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell dismissed DeMint's crusade as misguided.

In a different era, a junior Senator like DeMint might have given up his fight in exchange for a better committee assignment. But now, when GOP insiders like McConnell are losing their leverage and insurgents like DeMint are riding a wave of steaming tea, different tactics apply. DeMint rounded up anti-earmark supporters, working new media (he announced new co-sponsors via Twitter and joined a conference call for bloggers to press the issue), and vowed to force an internal Republican vote on Nov. 16, the day after the rally outside the Capitol. Conservative blogs and talk-radio hosts rallied to DeMint's side. Smelling an impending defeat, McConnell cried uncle. "Americans want change," he conceded in a Senate-floor speech, adding that the ban would be a "small but important symbolic step" to demonstrate that Republicans are serious about spending cuts.

But DeMint and his allies believe the earmark victory is anything but symbolic. They say earmarks are the grease that makes the hidden machinery of money politics work, the bribes that get really expensive measures through Congress. "Appropriators use earmarks to buy support for bills that come in way over budget," says Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Others point to suspicious coincidences between earmarks for certain industries and campaign contributions from their lobbyists. In DeMint's typically pointed phrasing, earmarks are "the gateway drug to socialism."

Which is DeMint's real target. The earmarks ban is just the first step toward what he hopes will be a radical downsizing of the federal government. That means slashing taxes and spending, repealing the Obama health care law, turning education policy over to the states and gradually dismantling safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare. All would be blows against what DeMint calls creeping socialism in the U.S. He warns that they will require some rough tactics in the new Congress. "I'm blasting rock, and it's hard to be graceful," he says with a chuckle. But some Republicans aren't laughing. They worry that DeMint's platform is not the stuff of national majorities, that he and his band of emboldened insurgents might overreach and scare off all but the most hard-core conservative voters.

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