In his new book, The Great American Awakening, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., recalls how he was ostracized for two years by fellow Republicans for his unbending conservatism. Now “Senator Tea Party,” as he calls himself in the book, has five new Senate allies he helped elect and is in a position to be a kingmaker in next year’s presidential primaries. Edited excerpts of National Journal’s interview follow.
NJ What made you decide to write the book?
DeMINT Part of it was just therapy to write down what happened. I went through two pretty dark years being fed up with the system and frustrated with my own party after two disastrous elections in 2006 and 2008. What I went through to try to change my party and to get some good conservatives in the Senate—and having no chance to get that done based on old political laws here. The fact that Americans were engaged changed the whole formula. What I saw over those two years was the power slide out of the hands of American politicians and back into the hands of the American people. I just want people to know that if they want to change the direction of the country, they can do it, but only if they’re active, informed, and engaged.
NJ Any regrets about not getting into the presidential race?
DeMINT No; it’s just not an ambition of mine.
NJ What is your ambition?
DeMINT My hope is to elect five or 10 more solid conservatives and go home and rock on my front porch.
NJ This is your last term?
DeMINT Yeah. It was not a campaign promise; but that is my plan, that the election last year was my last one. It has always been my plan not to serve more than two terms.
NJ Have you decided whom the Senate Conservatives Fund will support?
DeMINT We’re still interviewing and selecting candidates. We’ve endorsed two, Josh Mandel in Ohio [and] Ted Cruz in Texas. We’re going to try to help as many good candidates as we can find. We’re starting out in primaries where there’s a contested race and clearly a conservative against someone who’s not as conservative.
NJ You talked a lot in your book about the tension between you and party leaders, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senate Campaign Committee Chairman John Cornyn. How would you describe those relationships now?
DeMINT I always have had good relations with John Cornyn. But he was on a little different mission of trying to select those candidates they thought had a best chance of winning. My job was to select those candidates most closely representing the principles of the Republican Party and do everything I could to help them win. So, we’re friends. He’s a good conservative. Mitch McConnell and I are fine. I think he has to deal with the political realities, and I’m trying to change the culture.
NJ What do you say to critics who argue that this is a system built on compromise, and if the parties aren’t willing to compromise, everything will break down?
DeMINT Well, it’s true. But to give the president a $2.5 trillion increase in our debt is a compromise. The cut, cap, and balance plan was a huge compromise for Republicans in the House, many of whom said they wouldn’t vote for a debt increase. But they agreed to compromise in return for some sanity and what we were going to do to put the country on a plane toward a balanced budget. We weren’t asking that it be balanced this year or next year or the year after; but sometime in the next decade, we need to balance our budget. So I think we showed a lot of compromise.
NJ What role will your state play in the 2012 contest?
DeMINT I think it will play a big role. What we’re trying to do is work with some conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—maybe Florida, all the early states—and get conservatives to hold their endorsements so that perhaps we can spend some time screening and interviewing candidates and see what positions they take. Maybe conservatives can be more united this time around one candidate rather than dividing ourselves like we did last time.
NJ Do you still play the drums?
DeMINT Nope. I play the guitar a little bit. I used to play in a band, Salt and Pepper. We were half black and half white—which was really unique at the time. This was in high school, so it would have been the late ’60s. It was a lot of fun.
NJ What was your favorite song?
DeMINT It was “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.” It’s still a good song. I’m not sure it’s a good philosophy, but it’s still a good song.
This article appears in the July 30, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.