There are plenty of reasons why the Republican Party has dug in so deep, with so many demands, on the debt limit. It's what its new members of Congress want. It's what their presidential candidates, largely following their lead, want. And it's what Jim DeMint wants.
DeMint's wishes matter because, besides being the de facto leader of the Tea Party in the Senate, he has established himself as a kingmaker in South Carolina, one of the three early-primary states a Republican presidential candidate needs to win. In New Hampshire, the kingmaker is the businessman and failed statewide candidate Ovide Lamontagne. In Iowa, it's the Iowa FAMiLY Leader's CEO (and failed statewide candidate) Bob Vander Plaats.
Of the three, Vander Plaats is the only one trying to hold GOP candidates to a pledge on social issues—and he is having the toughest time getting candidates to follow his lead. For a decade, Vander Plaats has established himself as the Iowa social conservative who has to be dealt with. In his second run for governor, he dropped out of the race only to become his rival's running mate. When that didn't work, he chaired Mike Huckabee's campaign in the state, and basked in the credit when Huckabee won the caucuses.
Like DeMint, he created leverage, used it, and got more of it. He invites candidates to FAMiLY Leader forums, and they show up. He can bestow forgiveness or credibility on the candidates who ask for it. Newt Gingrich may take fire for his three marriages, but when he donates to the 2010 campaign to defeat Iowa judges who supported gay unions, or he talks with Vander Plaats, he gets forgiveness.
"Here's the deal," Vander Plaats says. "We're a Christian organization, which means a cornerstone of our faith is forgiveness and redemption. We're very clear that we're not trying to beat up people for their past. We've all fallen short, we can all move forward. And Newt Gingrich is very open about his shortcomings. He's shown a degree of maturity and humility."
Vander Plaats doesn't rule out contact with a presidential campaign unless they rule it out first. (He's utterly dismissive of Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman: "They're going to run from the debate," he shrugs.) But he's running into trouble as he tries to pin the candidates down. At the start of July he unveiled "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family." It was a long, footnoted document giving candidates the chance to defend the sacred institution and get in with Vander Plaats. It backfired. The full version of the vow, which only Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed, included a preamble condemnation of pornography and a line about how "slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household" than a baby born in the Obama era.
The rest of the candidates rejected the vow. Bachmann, when asked, rejected the slavery portion of it. The GOP's speaker pro tem in the House started saying what was obvious: Vander Plaats had lost clout.
"I'd say to the candidates that if they have their own statements we very much want to take a look at those," he says. "But we believe, at the crux of this, that this is a time when people are looking for bold leaders. There's no doubt that the pledge is demanding bold leadership. The preamble is pretty much just supporting data that family is in crisis. The slavery portion was being intentionally misinterpreted in the press."
Sure, there were less incendiary ways to write the pledge. But the essential problem is that it was harder for a Republican kingmaker to bring candidates to his position on social issues than it is to get them right on economics. This is Lamontagne's view, as he makes fewer demands on the Republicans who try to get right with him before they run.
"A pledge like that takes them off message," he says, referring to the FAMiLY Leader pledge. "It takes them off what they should be talking about. I'm pleased there doesn't seem to be that sort of pressure in New Hampshire. Most of us look for the total package when we look for a candidate. There's no reason to rely on some pledge, some fringe issue, that will decide your vote."
Yet DeMint has figured out how to take a pledge, back it up with the force of a key primary-state endorsement (or nonendorsement), and redefine what it means to be a faithful Republican. Two months ago, when Republicans came to South Carolina for the first presidential debate, he walked through the spin room delivering an ultimatum: No candidate would get his support unless he or she also supported a balanced budget amendment. Weeks later, he teamed up with conservative groups and endorsed an official "Cut, Cap, and Balance" pledge, tying any increase in the debt limit to a two-thirds vote in Congress that would send an amendment to the states. He got every presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman to sign it. Eventually, everyone else caught up to him.
The cut-cap-balance bill died in the Senate on Friday. That's OK: No one's really figured out yet the limits that the party will go to on taxes and spending cuts. DeMint's trying to force the issue. He's getting every potential Republican president to say that this is the plan. If they don't say it, they can't play in South Carolina, and they can't win over the base. He creates the standard. Candidates live up to it, or perish.
"I think what the 'Cut, Cap, and Balance' pledge shows is the difference between the accountability of a candidate and the accountability of an incumbent," says DeMint. "It's a cleansing process that goes on when you're campaigning."
It's a new experience for him. In 2007, as a freshman senator, he endorsed Mitt Romney early in the process—citing, among other things, Romney's solution for health care coverage. He's regretted that ever since. "I've been encouraging everyone not to endorse early," he says. "Once you endorse, the candidates stop listening to you. They pay attention to somebody else." That's not a problem for DeMint in 2011.