South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint's new book, The Great American Awakening (B&H), is subtitled Two years that changed America, Washington, and Me. I interviewed him when those years had just begun (See "Telling the truth," Oct. 24, 2009), so it's time to ask this Tea Party Republican about his priorities now. Here are edited excerpts from our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
You recently had your 60th birthday. You had to bring that up? It makes me feel tired just to mention it.
So let's go back to when you were a kid. I like the name your mom gave the dance studio that she ran, "The DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum." Was there more dance or decorum in your life? There wasn't a lot of decorum. My mother's four children constantly embarrassed her.
Have Republicans had too much decorum in Congress? When the GOP had a majority in both houses, why was there no healthcare reform? You've got to understand the different worldviews in Washington. There's one worldview that is mine, that America is a bottom-up institution, that it works when millions of people are making their own decisions about what they want to do and what they value. That's what creates entrepreneurs and innovators and free thinkers. That's what really builds our economy: an individual, taking risk, in hope of a financial reward.
But the other worldview? It's more of a top-down, European, central planning type of view. Some really believe that if you spend more from government, if you direct the spending to a solar company or something, you can decide the winners and losers.
And some people just want reelection? The easy thing to do in Congress is to get earmarks and bring home the bacon and get a good press release: "DeMint is working for the people of South Carolina. He got us a million dollars for this bridge." The work of actually developing legislation, getting co-sponsors-that's a lot of work, and it's frustrating.
It was also frustrating that nothing happened. My own party was not nearly as anxious as I hoped to sign up for a health reform proposal. We just didn't push it. It would have been very difficult to get it through. A lot of people in Congress do not want individuals to own their own health insurance.
So if Republicans were to gain the White House in the next election, and have a majority in Congress, what could replace Obamacare? Interstate competition between insurance companies. Let individuals deduct health insurance from their taxes. Let small companies, associations, churches come together and buy health plans that their members can have. Have it so when you retire you can keep your health insurance.
Would you advise Republicans in this upcoming election to say honestly, "We messed up last time, not acting on healthcare, but it will be different this time"? We have to. We have to re-earn the trust. We have to admit that we betrayed that trust. We didn't reform the tax code. We didn't have the critical mass even of Republicans.
You have referred to "venture socialism": What is it and how would you stop it? It's when the government starts picking winners and losers-but one of the first rules of free-market economics is that the private sector is going to allocate resources better than the government. Market forces will screen out those companies that don't have good products or business plans, but the president is stuffing money into the pockets of different solar companies and wind-generating companies.
What happens to the companies that don't get their pockets stuffed? People who've been in the solar business for a while tell you they can make this industry grow and do well if you can get the government to stop playing in it. But if you're competing, and suddenly the government comes in and gives your competitor a large amount of money ... this happens often.
In other industries as well? I've talked to companies that have spent millions of dollars laying cable for broadband in a rural area, and then a competitor will get a grant and come in and compete with them. The government can't pick winners and losers and have a good outcome. When we do start doing that, it creates uncertainty that restricts investment. We're seeing that a lot in the country today, as people are afraid to go out there because they don't know what the government's going to do to them, or give to a competitor.
The administration's stimulus bill obviously is not working, but many people wonder whether Republicans can do anything better. Hundreds of new rules are coming out of this administration every month, and companies don't know what to think. Banks don't know if they can expand or open branches because there are three regulators for every bank in this country today, and they all have different interpretations. The EPA is closing down a lot of electrical generating plants: That ripples into coal mining, and it's just beginning to disintegrate our economy.
Do we need tax changes? Let's just have a low, flat rate. We can help the poor and create safety nets, but when you have half of Americans who pay no federal income tax, that creates instability: Half the people don't care what government costs, or how much it spends.
What are other ways to create jobs? Open up America's energy supplies. That will create tens of thousands of jobs, relatively quickly. We have vast supplies of not just coal and oil but natural gas. Many states like South Carolina could benefit by bringing natural gas ashore, with a revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government.
Why are Republicans complaining about the PEPFAR program, which has been one of our rare international successes, saving millions of lives in Africa? We're not going to fix this sexually transmitted disease, despite the medicine, until there's some cultural reform, which is going to take a while, as you know. When Bush started the program, there were good results at the outset, we had people focused on the real mission. When they came back to re-authorize it, they wanted to double it, and we really didn't have good metrics on outcomes. It became a government program growing without real supervision and accountability.
You are a Republican, a conservative, and a Christian. Do these ever come into conflict? The role of government is always in the front of my mind. Faith is completely voluntary. Government uses force, and I think a lot of Christians in government lose sight of that. When God's talking about us helping the poor, He was not telling us to use the government by force to take people's money and go out and decide who's going to be helped. He was telling us as followers of Christ to help people.
A player has to be retired for at least five years before he can get into the baseball hall of fame. Should there be a rule that a politician be dead for at least five years before naming something after him? Government should be about serving others. Creating monuments to ourselves should not be a part of the process.