Jim DeMint Demonstrates What’s Wrong With Washington

Senator Jim DeMint demonstrated clearly today what is wrong with Washington.

Jim DeMint appeared on Morning Joe this morning and while much of the talk centered on his comments yesterday that Mitt Romney would likely win the South Carolina Primary, one exchange between the Palmetto State Senator and Jon Meacham sets forth exactly what’s wrong with Republicans in Congress today:

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JON MEACHAM: Senator, you’ve been in Washington now for 12 years. Actually more, sorry. Have things changed in a palpable, tactile way in terms of getting things done from when you came in?

DEMINT: Yeah, I think they are more polarized. And it’s a contrast I try to make in the book because we really no longer have a shared vision. I mean, I know from business that you have people coming from different directions, they can work together if they have shared goals and a shared vision. But now we have the tension between those who want centralized power, government control of education, health care, transportation, energy, and Republicans, who are I think finding their footing around their core principles of we need to devolve power out of Washington, we need to decentralize, because that’s what makes America work, is the bottom-up approach.

So saying to compromise now, and I use this analogy a lot, is just like a coach telling his team to go out and work with the other guys and cooperate with them. The Democrats are there to beat us. Every policy that they introduce is to centralize power. They are completely incapable of cutting spending because their constituency is based on dependency on government and those who want more from government.

DeMint has this wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing, we’ve seen in the past year that it is possible to get Democrats to agree to cut spending. It happened in March and April during the showdown over the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget and then again in August during the showdown over the debt ceiling. Both deals ended up including spending cuts and no tax increases. Going back further to the Clinton Era, we see evidence that a Republican Congress and a Democratic President worked together to cut spending, reform welfare, and pass groundbreaking trade agreements. During the Reagan Administration, a Democratic House and a Republican President passed tax cuts and tax reform. So, whether its partisanship or pure defeatism, DeMint’s suggestion that nothing can be agreed to simply doesn’t square with history.

DeMint also talks about the tension that exists on Capitol Hill between Democrats who favor an activist government and Republicans who do not. He speaks about this as if this some kind of new, groundbreaking development when, in reality, he is describing the central tension that has existed in American politics since the founding of the Republic:

It’s a debate that started more than 200 years ago around George Washington’s first cabinet table as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton squared off in debates over the proper role of the new Federal Government. Though he was not involved int he 1787 Convention, Jefferson quickly became an advocate of what we would today call a strict constructionist, most importantly with respect to the limited power that had been granted to the Federal Government. Hamilton, on the other hand, believed in a strong and energetic central government. He believed that Congressional power was not necessarily limited to the powers expressly stated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which was an interesting change for him since he had argued along with Madison and Jay in The Federalist Papersthat the Constitution created a government of strictly limited powers.

The history of the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debate, and the history of the early years of the Republic, tends to put the lie to the simplistic view that America prior to 1914 or 1932 was a paradise of laissez-faire government and strict adherence by the Federal Government to confines of the Constitution. In 1791, for example, President Washington proposed on Hamilton’s recommendation the creation of what ultimately became the First Bank Of The United States. Jefferson and his allies in the cabinet objected to the bill on the ground that there is no authority granted in the Constitution for Congress to charter a bank. Hamilton and his allies argued that the powers of Congress expanded beyond the mere specific grants of authority in the Constitution and included “attainment of the ends…which are not precluded by restrictions & exceptions specified in the constitution.” Washington sided with Hamilton, the Bank bill passed through Congress easily, and within the first two years of the new government’s existence the strict constructionist view of the Constitution had suffered a significant, some might say intellectually fatal, defeat.

The lines aren’t always clearly drawn, but in many respects the arguments that Democrats make today are the arguments that Hamilton and his successors made in those early days, while the Republicans have taken up the battle waged by Jefferson, Madison and those that followed them. The parties have actually switched sides in this debate. The Republican Party can trace its lineage to the Whig Party, which grew out of the collapse of the Hamilton’s Federalist Party. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, started life as the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th Century that the GOP became known as the small-government party while the Democrats became the activist government party. The names and the players may have changed, but the arguments remain largely the same. As James Joyner put it in a post in December 2010, the Constitution is an invitation to struggle, and that struggle has been going on from the beginning. DeMint is completely incorrect to characterize this divide as something new to America. In fact, this debate couldn’t possibly be more American.

This gets is to the final, and perhaps most egregious, problem with DeMint’s comments this morning and the attitude that they represent. DeMint characterizes his job as winning in a way that requires Republican principles to prevail. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this because it is what partisanship is all about and it too is as old as the Republic. His dismissal of compromise, though, completely misses the point of governing. By it’s very definition, governing means compromise in some respect. Neither the GOP nor the Democrats are going to get everything they want out of a piece of legislation because, even when they are in the majority, the opposing party is still able to take advantage of procedural rules to block, or at least slow down, legislation. Additionally, even a party caucus is never 100% unified on every single issue, meaning that intra-party compromises will have to be made, often to satisfy regional differences between North and South, East and West.

Furthermore, the Constitution itself was the product of compromise, in some cases morally questionable compromises that permitted an odious institution to continue for another 80 years as the price for national unity. In it’s very structure, the documents requires compromise between the Executive and Legislative branches and Article One itself is designed to require compromise between the populism of the House of Representatives and what the Founders believed would be the more sober, less impassioned, deliberation of the Senate. Additionally, while the Constitution didn’t necessarily contemplate the existence of political parties (although Madison’s discussion of factions in Federalist No. 10 comes very close to the concept), it is drafted in such a way that requires parties that disagree with each other to compromise with each other to accomplish even the most basic functions of government. The fact that DeMint does not seem to recognize that, or simply chooses not to acknowledge it, is perhaps the best example seen in a long time of what’s wrong with Washington. The divisions have always existed, and compromises have always had to be made. What’s wrong now is that the divisions are still there, but there’s an increasingly vocal faction on one side that refuses to even consider compromise on basic issues life budgeting, which is the one thing Congress is required by the Constitution to do every year.

A final thought. Earlier on in the interview, DeMint mentions that he is working toward the goal of a 5-6 seat GOP gain in the Senate. Were this to happen it would leave us with the GOP in power by a 53-47 majority, exactly the opposite of what we have right now. How, exactly, does DeMint think he or any other Republican is going to get anything done in that body without compromise? Surely, the Democrats have been watching the manner in which the GOP has utilized the filibuster and other Senate rules to their advantage for the past three years. Does DeMint not think that the tactics that his side have been using so well since 2009 will end up being turned against them when they’re back in the majority? Of course they will. When it happens, Mitch McConnell, DeMint, and the others, will have two choices. Either they will have to compromise to get things done, or they will end up in the same position as the Senate Democrats who have gone 989 days since passing a budget.

Governing means compromise, it’s as simple as that.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Plus his analogy to football game (or whatever sporting contest he is referring to) is nonsense. While legislative outcomes may have winners and losers, it is actually possible to compromise over the content of legislation in ways that are impossible to do with, say, a touchdown.

    And really, it isn’t about beating the other team, its about governing the country (or, at least, it should be).

  2. Rob in CT says:

    Well, he is from South Carolina. Not exactly a hotbed of compromise, historically, right? 😉

  3. Jim DeMint is, to many conservatives, a hero for those exact points.
    It’s depressing, and surreal to listen to him blame everything on the other party.
    One of the things that I’ve always admired and ascribed to, was that conservatives (used to, at least) took personal and professional responsibility for actions and consequences – but that’s long gone and it’s a shame.
    Blame, division and outright hatred are what gets votes.
    And I know the “both sides equivalency” argument – (which again just absolves blame or points it in a different direction) but as someone who’s 50 and been watching this devolve over the last several decades, the rise of the Limbaugh wing of the party is what fosters this mindset.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    Very similar to the position of Cantor in that 60 minutes interview a weeks or so ago.
    My only question is how Meacham followed up to DeMint’s f’ed up answer.
    I’m willing to bet he didn’t. Glad you did…excellent post.

  5. Additionally, (I saw this somewhere the other day), the inability to correct course, to admit mistakes or to take responsibility creates a paralysis – again much like we are experiencing currently.
    You get a “take no prisoners” mentality coupled to a “do no wrong” conviction.
    That’s a dangerous combination.

    And it’s created a bunch of Jim DeMints.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    Great little essay, Mr Mataconis.

  7. Ryon Lancaster says:

    Excellent essay. Very thoughtful and well put.

    One of the things that drives me crazy about viewpoints like this is that it only allows for policy that he agrees with. In a democracy, you both win and lose on individual policies, but with a no-compromise attitude like this, you try to cut out of the process all of those people who don’t agree with you. That to me is completely noxious and fundamentally un-democratic.

  8. Eric says:

    That’s what I have always argued when people have said going back to the Founding Father’s view of the United States. The Founders all have different view and as Doug simply states, “this debate couldn’t possibly be more American.” That’s why the Constitution is written as exactly as it was — to be vague and specific at the same time to allow interpretation of the Constitution.
    Jefferson and Hamilton were the icons and the Godfathers of the debate about the power and scope of the Federal Government.

    Great blog, Doug.

  9. David M says:

    The Democrats are there to beat us. Every policy that they introduce is to centralize power. They are completely incapable of cutting spending because their constituency is based on dependency on government and those who want more from government.

    As completely wrong as that quote is, it’s a common belief on the right. Doug M capably eviscerated the “incapable of cutting spending” lie, but the first part of the sentence isn’t any more valid.

  10. Septimius says:

    “The mean-spirited bill, H.R. 1 … eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts,” said Reid. “These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.” -Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV

    Harry Reid embodies the spirit of compromise.

  11. ed says:

    John Cole at Balloon Juice came up with the most appropriate analogy to date:

    I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

    He noted this on 5 February 2009. Prescient.

  12. ed says:

    Commenter cleek, also at Balloon Juice, coined a definition of the modern Republican party, also relevant here:

    Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.


  13. de stijl says:

    I don’t know why and when DeMint’s Manichean view became the standard Republican take on politics – maybe Gingrich’s bomb throwing era or the Bush v. Gore debacle.

    But here is one thing I do know: since individual elections are a zero sum game, some simple-minded folks also think that governing is as well.

  14. DeMint offers a neat summation of what’s wrong, but we all saw it coming. Remember a few years ago when the right media decided to take on “pragmatists?” The idea then was that pragmatists compromise, and compromise was always bad.

    I’m fairly sure OTB took that line, and that some of us had to defend pragmatism and compromise in these pages.

    This also relates to the “it’s all how you lean, how you vote” reduction. DeMint has taken that to the extreme, to the point where legislators do not govern, they prepare for the next election. He only wishes to govern from majority. Not doubt without those pesky pragmatists.

  15. Barry says:

    @Rob in CT: “Well, he is from South Carolina. Not exactly a hotbed of compromise, historically, right? 😉 ”

    This is important – S. Carolina was and is a rather strange place. And ‘compromise’ was not something they liked.

    Also, for Jim ‘You lie!’ DeMint to complain about incivility is pretty f*cking rich.

    Finally, the GOP has quite happy with activist government – when it suits their interests.

  16. Barry says:

    @doubter4444: “One of the things that I’ve always admired and ascribed to, was that conservatives (used to, at least) took personal and professional responsibility for actions and consequences – but that’s long gone and it’s a shame.”

    To me, that’s ‘Golden Age’ thinking. Not that there were and are people who do, but the idea that The Right Used to be Better is simply not true.

  17. PriklyPete says:

    America has been compromised to death! Until we hold/make all politicians in Washington accountable for their actions in accordance with our Constitution and remove their exempt status, both America and Americans freedoms will be gradually taken away from these pigs now feeding from the public trough. If you are willing to die for a cause then it should be to restore this country to what it was in the 50’s, no more free rides for politicians, our war should not be with third world countries but with Washington and the smoke and mirrors games played out against Americans. We have more resources than any other country in the world and are hog tied by the federal bureaucrats who are selling this country out for their own greed as they rally toward the New World Order.