Elections have consequences; that's the main lesson I guess we can take away from Jim DeMint's decision to flee the Senate and run the Heritage Foundation. Like most freely chosen job switches, DeMint's decision can be seen in 2 ways, I think: a comment on where he's leaving, or a sign of where he's going.
Lots of people, naturally focused on his leaving the Senate; though I think early reads on it missed the obvious fact that DeMint is leaving largely because the GOP lost, and for DeMint's purposes, lost huge. DeMint's been, in many ways, the Most Senior Elected Spokesman of the Tea Party movement, and his backing has been a 50/50 kiss of death. From Sarah Palin to Christine O'Donnell in Delaware to Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, DeMint's been a big proponent of "replacing RINOs", a discussion that's all but meaningless to most liberals. But that RINO thing is a big deal to conservatives, and their systematic housecleaning of the GOP goes a long way to explaining the Republican crack-up (and, by extension, the shape and size of the GOP problems since 2006, or more likely 2004).
DeMint will not be especially missed; from Lindsay Graham to Mitch McConnell, it was mostly "so long, and thanks for... er, nothing." But his fleeing speaks volumes to the fact that DeMint is in some ways more of a realist than his colleagues - hence his rush to embace a Tea Party movement I'm not convinced even he entirely likes - and gets that, for now anyway, it's not going to be much fun to be a Republican in elected office. DeMint may be a conservative true believer, but if he thought he could really effectively push conservatism in government, he'd have stayed. At the same time, DeMint's canary in the coal mine move does offer some idea of how Republicans could pull it together more: getting rid of gadfly outliers (DeMint was no great shakes as an actual legislator) and drawing some lines about unacceptable extremes remains, to my mind, the base starting point of any serious Republican effort to regain lost ground.
At the same time, it's even more interesting to contemplate DeMint's rush to run Heritage. Up until yesterday, I don't think anyone knew or cared who was actually running Heritage, outside of Washington's right wing elite, and even there, Heritage seemed sort of an afterthought. There's more cachet at the top of the right wing think tank heap for the American Enterpirse Institute, and even though the Cato Institute is in a bit of a mess, they too have a higher profile and more of a specific (libertarian) voice.
This move, it strikes me, is about raising Heritgae's profile and its ability to make the news cycle with bomb throwing quotes; DeMint is not an especially serious ideas guy, not someone who puts the "think" in "think tank." He is, on the other hand, popular with Rush and Hannity and Mark Levin and the other Demi-Gods of talk radio, and an easy booking for Fox News, sure to be quoted and talked about (and, for now, a bigger star than the rest of the room at Heritage). Remaking Heritage into a louder, less thoughtful, angrier thing may well be the kind of brand definition the place needs. How that will help conservatives be more impactful or change the national conversation, I think, is harder to fathom.
DeMint and the Board of Heritage may be right that DeMint can resahpe the place into something more winning (even if, like, oh, say, President Obama, DeMint has essentially no executive experience). But from here, it's hard to see how simply being louder and more visible, angrier and more right wing helps either Heritage or the conservative movement in the long run, absent interesting ideas and a sense of renewed energy and fresh perspectives. Still DeMint was probably right to flee the Senate now, cash in and join the conservative money circuit while the getting is good. I'd just say the wise move might be to bank that cash before the far right gets seriously marginalized and cut off. I mean, the idea that conservativism, done louder will somehow seem more winning is just... demented.