Fighting Health Care Overhaul, and Proud of It

By Katharine Q. Seelye, The New York Times

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Senator Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who predicted that President Obama’s effort to overhaul the health care system would become his “Waterloo,” is doing his best to make that happen.

Taking questions from a friendly crowd of 500 people here the other day, Mr. DeMint did little to correct their misimpressions about health care legislation but rather reinforced their worst fears.

When one man said the major House bill would give the government electronic access to bank accounts, Mr. DeMint told him the bill was never about health care. “This is about more government control,” he declared. “If it was about health care, we could get it done in a couple of weeks.”

Mr. DeMint, 57, is a first-term senator, a back-bencher with little influence in Washington’s corridors of power. But at home he is stoking anger over the health care issue as he advances his free-market philosophy, gains national attention and, perhaps, helps derail Mr. Obama’s agenda.

If that agenda is not stopped at health care, Mr. DeMint warned at a town-hall-style meeting in Greenville, “he’ll continue to spend and borrow this country into oblivion.”

Mr. DeMint is popular in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, the reddest region of this ruby red state and the area he first represented in Congress. He is running for re-election next year and so far has no serious challengers. State Senator Brad Hutto, a Democrat, had been considering a run, but Phil Bailey, political director of the State Senate Democratic caucus, said Friday that Mr. Hutto had decided against it. At the same time, most of the state’s political oxygen is being consumed by Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, who has been battling calls for his resignation since he admitted to an extramarital affair.

All of this has left Mr. DeMint free to fire up his conservative base, arguing for ideological purity at a time when other Republicans might compromise to try to rebuild their numbers.

Mr. DeMint has a strong following among members of the Club for Growth, the conservative antitax organization, and has endorsed club-backed Senate candidates in Republican primaries in Pennsylvania and Florida, not the ones endorsed by the Republican National Senatorial Committee. (In Pennsylvania, he endorsed Pat Toomey, a former club president, whenArlen Specter, the incumbent, was still a Republican.)

“He’s playing to the fund-raising base, both here in South Carolina and nationally,” Mr. Bailey said.

Mr. DeMint’s town-hall-style meetings, where he promotes his new book, “Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism,” tend to be more like cheerleading sessions than the angry confrontations faced by lawmakers elsewhere.

Here, he fueled speculation that a health care overhaul would cover illegal immigrants, although specific language says it would not. He also said senators and members of Congress would “absolutely not” pass a new health plan if they had to go on it themselves.

The only disruption came from a pig that a farmer had brought to protest “pork” in Washington. The pig, roaming within a few feet of Mr. DeMint, snorted and squealed its way through the event, held in the parking lot of the Beacon, a local burger joint.

Mr. DeMint, a former marketing executive, probably appreciated the stunt, having a knack for messaging and vivid language himself. An advocate of abolishing the tax code, he staged a rally in 2000 in which he went up in a hot-air balloon and threw out thousands of pages of theInternal Revenue Service code. In 2007, he popularized the word “amnesty” to describe (and help defeat) a plan to allow illegal immigrants to become citizens.

More recently, in mid-July, he crystallized what Democrats said was the Republicans’ true goal in the health care debate.

“If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” he said in a conference call with conservative activists, according to “It will break him.”

Now, with Congress set to return to Washington on Sept. 8, polls show that support for health care legislation has indeed eroded, and Mr. DeMint takes partial credit.

“We’ve definitely got him on the run,” he said in an interview.

He said that stopping the overhaul “has the potential of changing the whole political dynamic in this country,” both by halting other Obama policies, like the cap-and-trade approach to limiting emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, and by reviving the Republicans in next year’s elections.

Even if Mr. Obama’s plans are derailed, it is not clear that Republicans will benefit; a recent NBC News poll showed that just 21 percent of respondents approved of how the party was handling health care.

But Mr. DeMint distances himself from both parties. As he put it, “None of us wants the people who ran cash for clunkers or who cleaned up after Katrina to be between us and our doctors.”

He is sensitive to the accusation of being an obstructionist on health care and has come up with a plan of his own. It would give vouchers ($2,000 for individuals and $5,000 per family) to those not covered by their employers, let people shop in other states for insurance, limit malpractice suits and repeal the bailout to troubled financial institutions so that it would not add to the deficit.

Mr. DeMint does not get too many questions about it, but it has drawn some criticism. Frank Knapp, chief executive of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said that the plan had no sustainable financing mechanism and that Mr. DeMint came up with it only to give himself credibility in criticizing Mr. Obama’s plan.

The concept of allowing interstate sales of health insurance has never gone very far. Sandy Praeger, the insurance commissioner in Kansas and past president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, said such a plan would destabilize the nation’s insurance market and hurt consumers. It would allow insurance companies to cherry-pick young, healthy people and offer them lower premiums, Ms. Praeger said, while leaving higher risk people in a smaller pool, forcing up their premiums or leaving them unable to find coverage at all.

The subject of health care in Mr. DeMint’s own state rarely comes up either. But South Carolina, much of which is poor and rural, faces some particular challenges. Its unemployment rate of 11.8 percent exceeds the national rate of 9.4 percent. And 16.2 percent of the population has no insurance, more than the national average of 15.3 percent.

Rather, voters seem more interested in whether Mr. DeMint might run for president.

“I wouldn’t get out of my driveway without my wife shooting me in the back,” he said in Greenville. “You’ve got to find somebody who’s smart enough to be a great president but dumb enough to want to be president. Right now, I think I’m still too smart to be president.”

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