Politics & Government

S.C. senator takes on Obama over health care overhaul

Sen. Jim DeMint over the Fourth of July 2009
Sen. Jim DeMint over the Fourth of July 2009 Tim Dominick/The State/MCT)

WASHINGTON — Soft-spoken, slight of physical stature and not even the senior senator in his own state, Jim DeMint wouldn't seem like the most likely choice to fill the role of one-man Obama wrecking crew.

Yet the first-term South Carolina Republican has quickly emerged as a leading voice of opposition to President Obama's bid to overhaul the American health care system with new or expanded federal government programs.

DeMint, rated by advocacy groups across the political spectrum as one of the most conservative senators, has used his background as a former marketing firm owner to boil down the complex health care debate into a few pithy, attention-grabbing words.

In just the last month, DeMint has vowed to make health care Obama's "Waterloo" and urged conservative activists to help "break him;" compared the United States under Obama to the 1930's Nazi Germany under Hitler; and cast the heated health care fight as "a real showdown between socialism and freedom."

Obama singled out DeMint for criticism at a news conference last month, and the Democratic National Committee launched a TV ad targeting him.

"This is a battle I've been waiting for and hoping for, for years," DeMint told McClatchy. "We've got to stop the socialization of medicine . . . . We've stirred up a fight."

DeMint is also challenging Obama on a lower-profile issue: He's placed a hold on two nominees to senior State Department posts to protest Obama's pushing for ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's return to power, which the administration backed away from last week.

The health care dispute is dominating the news, however, and DeMint is in the middle of it.

In his quiet way, DeMint rejects Democratic claims that he supports the health care status quo and backs the insurance companies. He cites his bill to allow Americans to buy medical coverage across state lines and to permit businesses to pool their policies.

DeMint rebukes his opponents' depiction of him as a rabid partisan, noting that he criticized Republican President George W. Bush for overspending; opposed his No Child Left Behind education reforms; voted against his late-term bailout of banks; and attacked appropriations earmarks of lawmakers from both parties.

The senator also denies any connection between his strident attacks on "Obamacare" and conservative demonstrators' recent angry disruptions of Democratic lawmakers' public meetings in their home districts.

"I encourage people to be civil, to be courteous and to be respectful to their lawmaker, but I have encouraged people to go to the town halls and express their views. I've never seen people so alarmed about the direction of their country."

DeMint's growing legion of conservative admirers, who've made him the third-most-followed member of Congress on twitter.com, see him as a throwback to conservative icon Jesse Helms of North Carolina who tells it like it is and lets the political chips fall where they may.

"You're a great American," Katie Dempsey, a 20-something admirer from Houston, told DeMint last month as he signed her copy of his new book "Saving Freedom" at the National Press Club in Washington. "My mom loves you. If she wasn't married, you'd have to watch out."

Michael Frank is a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy institute where DeMint drew a roaring ovation during a recent speech.

"He is fearless in a positive way," Frank said. "He speaks his mind and conscience, and acts on it in a visible way. This becomes newsworthy in a town where most politicians do polls and put their fingers in the wind."

DeMint disavows any interest in higher office, though he doesn't discourage speculation over a possible White House run.

"I get asked everywhere I go if I'm going to run for president," he said in an interview.

Critics of DeMint, including some prominent members of his own party, deride him as a demagogue.

"Jim DeMint's style of divisive rhetoric and extreme rightwing ideology has turned off voters of all stripes and helped contribute to a Republican Party which continues to shrink," said Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, said last month, in explaining why he won't seek re-election next year, that DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are turning the GOP into a Southern outpost of hardcore conservatives and preventing it from growing.

DeMint, 57, begs to differ.

"Republicans are still getting elected in the South and other parts of the country when they run on a conservative platform," he said. "When Republican senators become liberal, they are eventually thrown out. If voters want liberals, they're going to vote for Democrats."

DeMint, though, bridles at the notion that his hard-edged words have encouraged the angry shouts of "Move to Europe!" or "Socialist" that have disrupted some Democratic lawmakers' town hall meetings.

"That's unacceptable," he said. "We've got to express our opinions, but we've got to show our respect."

A month ago, however, in his National Press Club speech, DeMint said, "We're about where Germany was before World War II where they became a social democracy."

He then compared Nazi Germany, and by extension, the United States today, to "power grabs like you see in Iran and other places in South America like (President Hugo) Chavez is running down in Venezuela."

A spokesman for DeMint said the senator wasn't comparing Obama to Hitler or the U.S. today to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, a comparison he called "absurd," but to the Weimar Republic, a German experiment in liberal democracy after World War I that collapsed in the early 1930s and gave way to the rise of National Socialism.

"The senator made a simple economic comparison to the Weimar Germany's inflation and high spending. It is absolutely absurd for anyone to claim he ever made a comparison to Nazi Germany's despicable acts. He would never do that," said Wesley Denton.

In recent days, however, conservative protesters have hoisted signs with photos of Democratic congressmen under the Nazi swastika, and on his radio show Friday, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh elaborated on DeMint's Nazi Germany comparison in a long rant against Obama.

Charlie Black, a prominent Republican lobbyist who was a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year, chuckled when asked whether DeMint is an extremist.

"If you went down and did a survey of where people stand on the issues in South Carolina, they would be with DeMint on 19 out of 20 issues, if not all 20," Black said. "It's a very conservative state."

While neighboring North Carolina backed Obama in November, supporting a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time in decades, South Carolina went solidly for John McCain.

The last Democratic senator in South Carolina was Fritz Hollings, a folksy former governor whom DeMint, who'd served in the House, replaced in 2005 after Hollings retired.

S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, a Democrat, is weighing a run against DeMint next year.

Hutto has received encouragement from J.B. Poersch, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and other party operatives in recent meetings in Washington and South Carolina.

"The positions he's taking on many issues are contrary to the interests of many South Carolinians," Hutto said of DeMint. "He has government health insurance (as a member of Congress), yet he's opposed to other people having the same type of coverage he has. I think that resonates with a lot of people."

As for DeMint's opposition to Obama, he claims that he likes Obama personally, and even wrote legislation with him when the Illinois Democrat was in the Senate. DeMint, though, believes that their vast ideological differences made it inevitable that they'd clash once Obama entered the White House.

"He has a completely different view of the role of government and our Constitution than I do," DeMint said. "He believes in centrally managed economics. You see it in the stimulus, you see it in 'Cash for Clunkers,' you see it in health care. ... I believe all of history proves that he's wrong. So, I'm going to fight him on policies that I believe are against the Constitution and bad for our country."


Sen. Jim DeMint, 57, and his wife, Debbie, live in Greenville, S.C.. They have four children. DeMint obtained an MBA from Clemson University in 1981, and then ran his Greenville marketing firm for 15 years, with hospitals among his clients.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 and served for six years before his 2004 election to the Senate, where he replaced retiring Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings.

DeMint first drew national notice in December 2006, when he blocked a massive spending bill and forced Congress to strip out thousands of earmarks totaling $1 billion. He became more widely known by labeling a 2007 immigration-reform bill as "amnesty" for undocumented workers and helped stoke public anger and lead Senate opposition that defeated the measure.


Now, as DeMint challenges President Barack Obama over healthcare, he's gaining wider exposure:

"We're about where Germany was before World War II, where they became a social democracy. You still had votes, but the votes were just power grabs like you see in Iran, and other places in South America, like (President Hugo) Chavez is running down in Venezuela."

_ National Press Club address, July 8, 2009

"We need to put the breaks on this president. He's been on a spending spree since he took office. . . . His goal seems to be a government takeover, not making insurance more available."

_ NBC's "Today" show, July 22, 2009

"I've probably introduced more healthcare reform proposals in the Senate than any Democrat today. In fact, President Obama voted against the very proposals I was talking about - interstate commerce, personal deductibility, using Health Savings Accounts to pay for a premium, small business health plans. He voted against all these things, Wolf, which leads me to believe that it's not health insurance he wants people to have, but government control."

_ CNN's "The Situation Room," July 28, 2009

"It's not personal, but we've got to stop (Obama's) policies. They're loading trillions of dollars of debt onto the American people."

_ National Public Radio, July 22, 2009

"I may have disagreements with him on the issues, but he is my president, he deserves our respect, and we need to forget that nonsense (of claiming Obama wasn't born in the United States)."

_ Huffington Post, July 27, 2009

"If we're able to stop Obama on this (healthcare), it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

_ Conference call with conservatives, July 17, 2009

"Just the other day, one Republican senator (DeMint) said — and I'm quoting him now — 'If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. Think about that. This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy. "

_ President Barack Obama, healthcare forum, July 20, 2009

"We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns. "It's the Southerners. They get on TV and go, 'errrrr, 'errrrr. People hear them and say, 'These people, they're Southerners. The Party's being taken over by Southerners. What they hell (do) they got to do with Ohio?"

_ Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, July 27, 2009

"They want a private club with an admissions test. They don't want a party which is, by definition, coalition. . . . I think Jim DeMint has said as much. He'd rather be 32 believers (in the Senate) than he would these broad coalitions that make a majority."

_ Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, MSNBC's "Hardball," July 29, 2009


Listen to the complete McClatchy interview of Sen. Jim DeMint

DeMint's Senate Web site


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