While some simply see Jim DeMint as one of the most right-wing members of the U.S. Senate and a Republican leader of the conservative movement, I believe DeMint could be leading the GOP and the movement on the path to redemption.

American conservatism has taken a wrong turn. It is true we have elected plenty of Republicans who call themselves conservatives, and we have plenty of organizations that fly the conservative flag. We even have conservative radio and TV stations that broadcast to millions. But what we don’t have is anything remotely resembling the type of constitutionally limited government the Founders intended, Barry Goldwater championed, and Ronald Reagan promised. The last Republican “revolution” we had was in 1994 when the GOP took back the House, outraged over a $4 trillion national debt. Today, that number is $16 trillion and climbing. Epic fail.

The original Tea Party movement rose in 2009 and 2010 primarily to protest government spending and debt. Sen. DeMint quickly became a Tea Party darling precisely because he was the rare Republican who actually voted against entitlement expansions like Medicare Plan D when the rest of the GOP marched in lockstep with President George W. Bush. Even when Karl Rove threatened DeMint over the Medicare expansion by implying a primary challenge, the senator refused to back down. He said he’d rather lose the next election than his principles. DeMint further showed off his true-blue conservative credentials by bucking the GOP establishment in 2010 by backing anti-establishment candidates — like Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

This is not to say that DeMint is perfect. But it is to say that he recognizes where the Republican Party and the conservative movement has been impotent. It is to say that the senator has been willing to address and help correct the many contradictions within the GOP that have gone against conservative principles and prevented a true conservative movement from taking hold in Washington.

Not only has DeMint been willing to tackle potentially toxic subjects like entitlement reform, he’s not afraid to rebuke the neoconservative mantra of more war and military spending that dominated the GOP during the Bush era. As DeMint told Reason magazine in December 2011, “We need to make sure that we have the technology, the intelligence, the equipment to defend America from a lot of new threats. And if that is not doable with bases all over the world, we need to rethink how spread out we actually are. We do need to rethink the money we spend on military and defense … There’s a difference between spending on military and spending for defense.” DeMint has advocated for Pentagon spending reductions and has been in the minority in voting for Republican budgets that make those cuts.

DeMint has also welcomed libertarians into the GOP fold. In fact, the South Carolina senator believes that libertarian ideals are an integral component to serious conservatism. “I’d like to see a Republican Party that embraces a lot of the libertarian ideas,” DeMint said last January, adding that if the GOP didn’t embrace these ideas, “We won’t be able to exist as a party, certainly not a majority party.”

Last Thursday, while I was considering DeMint’s legacy and his future as he retires from the Senate and heads to the Heritage Foundation, Judge Andrew Napolitano reinforced my thoughts on Fox News: “He’s now the most powerful Republican in town. He has an extraordinary megaphone. This is not [an] inside-the-Beltway story. This is a Jim DeMint-is-the-leader-of-the-conservative-Republicans-in-the-country story. And they couldn’t have a nicer, more true to core values, or more articulate spokesman than they have as of today.” Napolitano’s exuberance is apparently contagious, with numerous pundits proclaiming that DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation is one of the best things that could have happened to the GOP.

While I was disappointed to see Sen. DeMint leave the Senate, I was also excited that he might have even more political influence moving forward. The persistent handicaps on the Right that I’ve mentioned, particularly the Republican Party’s persistent opposition to Pentagon spending cuts and their resistance to libertarian influences, are longstanding faults that the Heritage Foundation has been guilty of as well. But now DeMint’s going to head the organization, and we can hope they will be influenced by many of his views.

There are no guarantees that this will happen, but as Napolitano explained, “Jim DeMint is a classic, traditional, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan conservative Republican, none of this George Bush compassionate-conservative, mealy mouth stuff. He really believes that the states have a role in government, that the individual is greater than the state, that the government should shrink.”

This is conservatism. We haven’t had it for some time. This is what Jim DeMint stands for. There is hope.

Jack Hunter assisted Sen. Jim DeMint with his latest book, Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse.

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