Tea and Promises
Jim DeMint's Tea Party Caucus lets activists drive the GOP further to the right.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., arrived early at the first-ever public meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday. Dozens of activists had trekked into the grand meeting room of the Hart Senate Office Building just to meet the senators, or to get their signatures on their pocket Constitutions. DeMint moved quickly through the crowd and walked right into Lisa Miller.
"We're really hoping that you'll present enough to balance the budget per annum within this year," said Miller, an activist from Alexandria, Va. "It takes $1.5 trillion, right now, to really start paying down the debt. But given that our spending right now endangers the general welfare, even though it's never happened in the history of our government, we should have the tools under our current Constitution, to preserve the union."
DeMint had never promised to balance the budget immediately. There were reporters watching him, ready to hear a brand-new policy statement. He avoided making one and talked up a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
"We want an amendment to balance the budget," he said, quietly, "because we're in agreement that we're going to bankrupt the country. … I don't know if it's next month or next year, but we're not that far."
Miller went right back at him. "We have a division here in the Tea Party. I don't support any of these constitutional amendments. I believe we have the tools right here, today, in order to preserve our financial strength, as well as our national security."
DeMint kept walking her back. "The reason a lot of us are supporting a constitutional amendment," he said, "is that they've done things before and made laws like pay-go—you can't pass anything without paying for it. But every time it came up they'd waive it, with 51 votes. It was like a joke. The Social Security lockbox was supposed to keep us from spending Social Security funds. We kept spending them. There's no institutional discipline."
DeMint kept trying to convince her that he—Jim DeMint!—was not a squish. "If we don't have a requirement to balance the budget, then politics will take it apart. Right now I've introduced $2.5 trillion over 10 years, and listen, the Democrats are just pounding us for wanting to cut essential services. Plus, the thing is, there's no requirement that we have to do anything."
"Sir," said Miller, "have you ever said no to a teenager?"
DeMint moved quickly to assure her. "I can say no!"
This conversation went on for 10 minutes; the space around DeMint filled with reporters wagging digital recorders. It left an impression. When DeMint took the podium to introduce the caucus and promise that it wasn't trying to co-opt the movement, he said co-opting would be impossible anyway.
"You can keep on reminding us that what is rational and reasonable here is not rational and reasonable on the outside," said DeMint. "What seems doable here is not enough." He pointed to Rand Paul of Kentucky, a founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus along with DeMint and Mike Lee of Utah. Paul had just proposed a package of deep cuts. "When he suggested cutting $500 billion, they said 'Aw, he's a far right-winger.' But if I walk through this crowd, I'm hearing that cutting $500 billion isn't enough. I'm not right enough!"
That right there is the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP. There were many questions about whether DeMint's rebels were getting on with the leadership.
"How would you describe the Tea Party caucus's relationship with Republican leaders?" one reporter asked Paul.
Paul just shrugged. "Good," he said.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Jim DeMint by Win McNamee/Getty Images.