“A lot of the libertarian ideals that Ron Paul is talking about…should not be alien to any Republican,” Sen. Jim DeMint said during an interview at reason’s Washington, D.C., offices in late January. Encouraging words from a South Carolina Republican who has earned a reputation as one of his party’s strongest voices for fiscal conservatism during his six years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate.
Yet right after the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of DeMint-backed Tea Party freshmen to Capitol Hill, the Palmetto State’s junior senator proclaimed that “you can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative,” a comment that was widely viewed as a slap at libertarians. DeMint, a reliable defender of the PATRIOT Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an avowed opponent of what he calls the “destructive forces of secularism.” He is a staunch pro-lifer, has favored a constitutional ban on flag burning, and is on the record saying that gays shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools.
But DeMint’s new book, Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse (Center Street), is an urgent warning about fiscal, not social, issues. To write the foreword, DeMint picked Ron Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—a man who bridges the gap between his father’s more ideologically libertarian stance and the mainstream GOP. Now or Never calls for a new coalition in favor of radical budget cuts—including reductions in military spending—aimed at avoiding irreversible economic decline.
After backing Mitt Romney in 2008, DeMint has declined to endorse a presidential candidate so far this political season. reason’s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch interviewed him on the afternoon of the Florida primary. For a video version of the conversation, go to reason.tv.
reason: Your new book, Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse, has a foreword by Rand Paul, one of the new senators you helped get elected through your activism with the Tea Party and your push for limited government. The first sentence of your book is “This is insane.” What is insane?
Jim DeMint: This could be our last chance to turn things around. And I know politicians: They cry wolf when there’s no wolf; we talk about crises all the time. But when the debt is bigger than your economy and the plan is to keep borrowing another trillion dollars more every year, there’s not that much money in the world to borrow; we’re going to have to print it. It means the value of our dollar is likely to go down. Interest rates will go up. We can’t pretend that this [problem will go away], like Greece did or like Europe is doing. It’s a very real problem.
The other problem is political. Almost half of Americans are getting something from government, and the other half are paying for it. And we’re on a track where 60 percent are getting something from government and 40 percent are paying for it. You can’t sustain a democracy with that mix.
reason: Because the 60 percent is going to be voting a bigger and bigger share of the 40 percent’s money?
DeMint: It’s hard to win elections when you’re talking about limited government if the constituents want more from government. You see that phenomenon on display in Greece. When the country is going down in flames, there are still people in the street, demonstrating for more government benefits. We’ve got to understand we’re in trouble, that we don’t have much time.
We are at a tipping point politically. Those folks who are normally not interested in politics—they’re working and paying taxes, raising families—we’ve got to engage them in the political process this year. We can turn things around. One of the main points of the book is that we forgot what makes America exceptional. We’re a bottom-up country, very individualistic. Every other country was top-down, where a king, or dictator, or general can shape things from the top. But we were different and we were successful, because we began at the individual level.
reason: In the book you talk a lot about how this is the Republicans’ fault as well as the Democrats’ fault.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: Since 1950 we’ve had many more years where the government ran a deficit than a surplus. The federal government has only grown in size and scope, as have state governments and local governments. What was the turning point? And what is the Republicans’ responsibility in the current mess?