When Congress adjourned for its August recess this year, most members avoided the town hall meetings that were once the standard venue for hearing from constituents. They were too afraid. Ever since activists opposed to President Obama’s health-care bill ambushed lawmakers in August 2009, few members are willing to risk a confrontation being immortalized on YouTube—or, worse, Fox News. Trips home are now carefully choreographed affairs that limit spontaneous voter contact.
But neither the anger nor the town hall format has gone away; they’re just under new management. In mid-August, Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who quit the Senate in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank, set off on a nine-city Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour. DeMint, 62, is a courtly, polished Southerner who used to own a marketing business. These days he’s selling the idea that it’s not too late to kill the health-care law. In each city, hundreds and sometimes thousands of true believers crammed into hotel ballrooms to hear him explain how, with enough pressure on legislators, Congress could be persuaded to withhold funding for the law and thereby halt it before public enrollment begins on Oct. 1. “The House holds the purse strings,” DeMint told his crowds. If Republicans keep them cinched, he promised, the law would fail.
DeMint’s idea was initially dismissed as quixotic. For one thing, the Affordable Care Act is mostly paid for by mandatory funds that can’t be blocked. For another, Democrats control the White House and Senate. Even so, the defund push has caught fire in Washington because activists have made it into a crusade. “We needed someone out there arguing for what is the right thing to do and putting the flag in the right place,” DeMint says over breakfast the morning after he’s addressed 900 people in Columbus, Ohio. “This little effort, with a paltry amount of money, has drawn thousands of people, almost tearfully, to come out in support.”
DeMint assumes that Republicans have leverage because funding for the federal government will run out on Sept. 30, and if Congress doesn’t pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open, it will shut down the next day. That’s an outcome neither party wants, but one DeMint calculates Obama would do almost anything to avoid—including making concessions on his signature law. So in August, as the defund tour wended its way through the country, DeMint was pitching the idea of a continuing resolution that funds everything except Obamacare. Scores of Republican congressmen and senators signed on, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who joined DeMint onstage in Dallas to endorse the idea. “There is a paradigm shift under way in American politics, which is the rise of the grass roots,” says Cruz, the leading defund promoter in the Senate. “It’s changing the way political decisions are made in Washington.”
Many Republicans looked on in horror as the defund movement gained steam. If the government shuts down, polls suggest blame will fall most heavily on the GOP. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr calls DeMint’s plan “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” Representative Tom Cole, a veteran Oklahoma Republican, has likened the shutdown threat to “putting the gun to your own head. You’re basically saying, do what I want or I’ll shoot.” DeMint doesn’t see why his ploy should hurt Republicans. “Democrats will be shutting down the government to protect Obamacare,” he insists. As DeMint sees it, if Republicans would just toughen up and start singing from the same hymnal, public opinion might swing to their side. And if they won’t, he plans to turn his legions of supporters inside and outside of government against them.
On Sept. 20, House Speaker John Boehner, who badly wants to avert a shutdown, succumbed to the uprising in his caucus and held a vote on a funding bill that excludes Obamacare. All but one Republican supported it. (Through his staff, Boehner declined to be interviewed.) This could soon bring about the very crisis Boehner has tried to prevent, because the Democratic Senate will strip the defund provision and then—well, it’s not clear.
When most Americans look at Washington, they see a broken Congress, riven by partisanship and lurching from crisis to crisis. While the hostility between Republicans and Democrats is indeed severe, it isn’t the real reason the engine of government keeps seizing up. What’s causing the malfunction is a battle within the GOP over how to return the party to its former glory after two consecutive losses to Obama and setbacks in the House and Senate. It’s a fight that pits uncompromising, Heritage-style conservatives against more cautious Republican elders. What makes it so contentious is that both sides have radically different—and mutually exclusive—ideas about how to move forward.
This struggle heats up each time a major budget deadline approaches, and two huge ones loom in the days ahead: There’s the Sept. 30 government funding deadline and then, sometime in late October, the Department of the Treasury will reach the limit of its borrowing capacity and default unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. In crises precipitated by similar deadlines, Republican leaders have always managed to keep their party together—or at least keep it from coming apart.
That will be much harder this time. While Boehner and the GOP leadership want mainly to navigate safe passage through the budget deadlines, DeMint and his cohort see the deadlines as crucial tests of party resolve and a key to the Republican resurgence they envision. DeMint views the impulse to avoid confrontation as the root of Republican woes: Only by engineering grand clashes and then standing resolutely on the side of small government can Republicans win this existential struggle.
“If I were speaker, I’d tell the president, ‘Mr. President, we funded the government, but we’re not going to fund your bill,’ ” says DeMint, who likes to make his point by acting out imagined confrontations. “ ‘We are not going to give in—one month, two months, three months. We are never going to give in. It’s just that important.’ And if the president wants to put the country through that to save a law that isn’t ready to go, well, then that’s a battle we have to have.”
When DeMint quit the Senate mid-term, it came as something of a shock in Washington, because a high-profile senator is presumed to have more power than a think tank president. There was plenty of snickering that he was cashing in: Heritage paid his predecessor more than $1 million last year. (The group won’t comment on DeMint’s salary.)
DeMint says he was just fed up. When he was first elected to Congress in 1998, insurrection wasn’t his goal. “I came to Washington as a businessman,” he says, “served six years in the House as a team player. Didn’t cause trouble. I was a policy nerd, introduced Social Security reform, tax reforms, all kinds of health-care reforms.” In 2005 he moved up to the Senate, where he began to lose patience with what he viewed as his party’s lack of commitment to first principles. “We had a lot of people who were great pretenders, talked real big about being conservatives,” he says. “But behind closed doors, they were driving the ball in the opposite direction.”
For a while he thought he could change this by attracting a stauncher breed of Republican to the Capitol. In 2010 he formed a political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, to elect like-minded Republicans. He violated Senate protocol by backing challengers to establishment candidates, as when he endorsed Rand Paul for Kentucky’s open Senate seat in 2010 over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked choice. DeMint helped to elect many of the most influential rising conservatives, including Cruz and Marco Rubio of Florida. “I wouldn’t be in the Senate without Jim DeMint,” Cruz says.
Yet he also championed fringe Tea Party figures such as Sharron Angle, who tried to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell, whose defeats cost the party seats—and possibly control of the Senate. DeMint didn’t care. He enraged many in his party when he said he’d rather have 30 Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters, a slap at the moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania who later switched to the Democrats. DeMint became McConnell’s tormenter and the leading voice of dissent among Senate Republicans.
“What Jim loved most was letting his imagination run loose about what conservatism could do,” says Tim Chapman, who worked for DeMint while he was in Congress and is now chief operating officer of Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation. “But the Senate can be a lonely place. His frustration was less with the fact that he was getting beat up left and right by his colleagues—he’s got thick skin—than that he wasn’t able to talk about big ideas.”
So DeMint gave up trying to purify the party from within. “I recognized that, even after working to elect candidates the party really didn’t want, the only way to change Washington is to go directly to the people,” he says. “You have to win the debate on the outside to shape the culture.”
DeMint thought the Heritage Foundation could provide a platform that the Senate had not. The foundation was the favorite think tank of the Reagan administration, and although its influence has waned, its scholars still staff Republican administrations and congressional offices. Over the years, the Heritage brand has been sullied by the impression that many of its experts are more concerned with politics than scholarship. Selecting an outspoken partisan like DeMint to be president only deepens this impression. Someone as impatient for a Republican revolution as DeMint, though, would see plenty to like about the job, not least its connection to Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4) organization created in 2010 that can run television ads, lobby members of Congress, organize activists, and otherwise advocate for political causes, which the Heritage Foundation itself, as a nonprofit, is forbidden from doing.
While ethics laws bar DeMint from lobbying his former colleagues until he has been out of the Senate for two years, the organizations he oversees and the PAC he founded in the Senate are all pushing his agenda. The Heritage Foundation has produced studies questioning the benefits of immigration reform; Heritage Action has put the defund movement center stage; and the Senate Conservatives Fund, though DeMint is no longer formally affiliated, has been running attack ads calling McConnell a “turncoat” who “surrendered to Barack Obama” in the health-care fight.
The widespread assumption after the 2012 election was that Obama’s victory had settled most of the big fights contested in the campaign, Obamacare in particular. The Republican National Committee, reeling from Mitt Romney’s defeat, conducted an autopsy of what went wrong and concluded that the party needed to broaden its appeal to immigrants, young people, and minorities and move beyond its image of implacable hostility. Boehner was among the first to embrace this message. “It’s pretty clear that the president was reelected,” he said on Nov. 8. “Obamacare is the law of the land.”
Since then two things have become apparent: Conservative activists have rejected this call for moderation, and Boehner has lost control of the House. The second has everything to do with the first and explains why we’re careening toward shutdown. DeMint, Cruz, and all those trying to defund Obamacare drew precisely the opposite lesson from the last election than just about everyone else did. “Republicans were told, ‘Don’t do anything. Don’t be the issue. Don’t stand for anything. Make it about Obama,’ ” DeMint says. “What happened in 2012 was that there was a void of any inspiration, any attempt to lead. It certainly wasn’t because the party was too conservative—it was because there was no conservative leadership at all!”
DeMint thinks the election results don’t accurately reflect national sentiment and therefore can’t be used to argue against his desire to move the party to the right. True conservatism never got a hearing—particularly not in regard to Obamacare, which was, after all, modeled after a Massachusetts law signed by Romney. “Because of Romney and Romneycare, we did not litigate the Obamacare issue,” he says. Essentially, DeMint is declaring a mistrial. His side can still prevail, he says, but only by awakening the angry, alienated masses who were put off by Romney’s tepid impersonation of a conservative.
“The world changes when you run a real campaign,” says Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, an ally in the defund push. “Heritage was out there working during the break. Constituents were talking to their members. Now members are pressing leadership, saying, ‘Look, we know this law is not ready. It should not be shoved on Americans.’ ” The Sept. 20 House vote to defund was celebrated as a milestone by Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and other conservative groups that had agitated for it.
The House has become the locus of the Republican civil war because it embodies the upheaval that has coursed through the party during Obama’s presidency. Almost half the Republican caucus—47 percent—was elected in 2010 or later, which means they swept into Congress on the Tea Party wave that was a backlash against Obamacare and the ineffectual GOP establishment. Owing no allegiance to Boehner, these new members have much more in common with outside groups such as Heritage, whose siege mentality and impatience with party orthodoxy they share. “The rise of extra-congressional powerhouses like DeMint and Heritage has really impeded leadership’s ability to move legislation,” says David Wasserman, a House expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
DeMint’s grand plan to shape the party is built on his conviction that most elected Republicans don’t have the guts to cast tough votes, especially to cut entitlement programs, which conventional wisdom holds to be political-career-enders. DeMint cites the example of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s budget as evidence that Republicans are all too often gulled into complacency when they should be fighting for their ideals. In 2008, when Ryan first introduced a budget that sought deep cuts in entitlement spending, he drew only eight co-sponsors. In 2011 the Tea Party uprising persuaded the House to pass Ryan’s budget, and most members survived the next election. To DeMint, this proved that entitlement cuts aren’t an automatic death sentence. It shifted the boundaries of mainstream debate to the right. Over time, he suggests, that vote and others like it will condition Republicans to think much more ambitiously about what they can achieve.
And if they don’t want to, he isn’t going to take no for an answer. “We believe that if you throw them in the deep end of the pool, they’re going to learn to swim,” says Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action. That is, if Republicans can be compelled to take tough votes, the insurgents’ ideas will move from the fringes to the mainstream. Establishment Republicans who mock DeMint and Heritage as “hobbits” and “Neanderthals” will be forced to defend these ideas on TV. Republicans will all finally be rowing in the same direction. (At least one establishment heavyweight seems unpersuaded. Karl Rove calls the defund movement an “ill-considered tactic.”)
Oddly enough, DeMint’s inspiration isn’t Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, but Barack Obama, whose strategy Heritage has begun to mimic. “Instead of making fun of him for community organizing,” DeMint says, “we need to realize that that’s how they’re winning on the left: empowering people on the grass-roots level and getting them organized and informed.” To his way of thinking, liberals banded together to force through an unpopular health-care law and have resolutely stood by it. “You had Democrats who were intent, even courageous, about centralizing health care and risked their political careers to do it.”
One of the few members of Congress to hold a town hall meeting during the August break was Representative Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican from suburban Raleigh elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. By almost any measure, Ellmers is unimpeachably conservative: She has voted 41 times to repeal Obamacare. But prior to her Sept. 3 town hall she spoke out against the defund-or-shutdown strategy. For this she came under withering assault from Dee Park, a feisty, white-haired, 76-year-old grandmother of 17 and Twitter warrior (@grammydee17) from nearby Pinehurst.
Park is part of Heritage Action’s Sentinel program, which trains activists in the manner of the Obama campaign. Only rather than solicit votes, the 5,000 Sentinels are rigorously briefed so they can parry politicians’ feints and dodges and pin them down on whatever issues Heritage deems urgent. “Every Monday afternoon we get a call with the latest intelligence,” Park explains. “From 5:30 to 6 they give us background, answer our questions, and teach us how to recruit.” Park was dispatched to Ellmers’s town hall because, as she put it, “We were concerned that Renee’s Heritage score was not that good.” Heritage Action, like many political groups, grades members on their voting record. “She was voting in ways that we felt were not conservative.” At the meeting, Park, bedecked in an American-flag rugby shirt and gripping her Heritage literature, peppered Ellmers about why she wouldn’t support the defund plan until the congresswoman seemed ready to burst.
A few days later, Ellmers was still steamed. She had just come from the dentist’s office after having a tooth pulled, yet it was clear that DeMint was the greater irritant. “I don’t understand Heritage coming after Republicans,” she says. “We’re the ones fighting against things like Obamacare being put in place. We’re the ones committed to this effort. Shouldn’t these outside groups be working with us?” Her objection to the defund strategy is shared by many Republicans: namely, that it will do more harm than good and ultimately hand power to Obama. Still, she concedes the tactics were effective. “I don’t take it into account myself,” she says, “but there are members who change their votes if they find out that one of these outside groups is scoring it.”
DeMint makes no apologies. “If members feel criticized,” he says, “it’s probably because their constituents are finding out that they’re not fulfilling a campaign promise.”
The echoes of the Obama campaign were even more unmistakable on the nine-city defund tour. Every evening, Heritage Action CEO Needham would warm up the room by leading the audience in a raucous call-and-response chant that borrowed Obama’s famous slogan from 2008.
“Can we defund Obamacare?” Needham would call out.
“YES WE CAN!” roared the audience in reply.
Instead of building momentum toward Election Day, though, the tour was whipping up activists ahead of Oct. 1. That’s the day people can start signing up for the health-care exchanges and, to foes of Obamacare, a potential point of no return. As with the 2012 election, the Republican establishment seems to have been caught off guard by the level of grass-roots intensity, only this time it’s their own side that’s riled up. “Republican leaders can’t fathom a world in which we’re transmitting an authentic message from the base,” says Chapman of Heritage Action.
The rebellion has been building all year. In June, House conservatives killed the Republican farm bill because it didn’t cut deeply enough into nutrition programs. In July they rejected a Republican transportation and housing bill they considered too generous. In early September, Boehner’s first attempt at funding the government wasn’t so much killed as laughed out of the room. Its provision to defund Obamacare was merely symbolic, an attempt to appease his right flank while also avoiding a shutdown by instructing the Senate to split off the defund vote. Heritage alerted its network, and conservatives quickly made clear they wouldn’t stand for it. All at once, Republican Washington seemed to realize that the ideologues could no longer be brushed aside.
DeMint likes to quote the Austrian political economist Friedrich Hayek: “Politicians are corks bobbing on the water, but we can direct the current.” Right now, Boehner is caught in a current from which he can’t seem to escape. Appeals to moderation won’t work; the purists see moderation as the problem. To DeMint, the only question is how committed Republicans are to an ideology they all profess to agree on. “There isn’t a Republican in Congress who hasn’t promised to do everything they could to stop Obamacare,” he says. “There’s no intellectual rift. The rift is over is it worth fighting for?”
DeMint’s answer will always be yes. Not even the disastrous 1995 shutdown orchestrated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich can convince him otherwise. Every Republican leader believes it was a costly mistake, never to be repeated. DeMint agrees that it hurt the party, though for an entirely different reason: He thinks Gingrich lost his nerve. “The Republican leadership went into a showdown with [Bill] Clinton and folded when they were three hours from winning,” he says. “So you’ve got this permanent impression that we won’t hold together.” He bases this claim on George Stephanopoulos’s memoir of the Clinton White House (Stephanopoulos writes “our coalition was cracking,” but doesn’t say Clinton was about to fold). Had Gingrich showed more fortitude, DeMint is convinced he could have prevailed; and so, too, can today’s Republicans if they have the stomach to close the government. “I think Americans would side with the people who are fighting against a law they know is unfair,” he says. Even many conservative Republicans don’t buy it. “It will be a political fiasco that could cost us the House,” says Ellmers.
Meanwhile Democrats are ecstatic over what they see as the GOP’s suicidal rightward lurch. “If I had the money, I’d pay for DeMint and Heritage to go to every state in the union,” says Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic strategist and president of the liberal group Americans United for Change, which held counter-rallies in each city along the Heritage tour.
DeMint remains undaunted. He is so certain he’s right that he sees no limit to the transformative power of his brand of conservatism. “Our hope,” he says, “is that by 2016 we will have so cultivated the mindset of America for the right ideas, that we’ll see candidates running on those ideas. Maybe even Democrats.”
However the budget deadlines are resolved, Cruz has already provided a glimpse of how this party feud will grow and intensify. On Sept. 24, as the Senate prepared to take up the House defund bill, he stepped to the floor and announced with solemn self-importance, “I rise today in opposition to Obamacare. . . . I will speak until I am no longer able to stand.” For the next 21 hours, he didn’t let up. Cruz can barely contain his eagerness to run for president, and his talkathon to block a vote on Obamacare was a valentine to the party’s base. Cruz is one of three DeMint protégés expected to jockey for the 2016 Republican nomination (Paul and Rubio are the others). Through them, and through his Heritage army, DeMint will keep channeling the current. And that will either give the Republicans the renaissance he envisions—or sweep them into oblivion.