EDITOR'S NOTE: U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint has raised his national profile by battling President Barack Obama's health care reform plans. He sat down Tuesday with reporter Robert Behre to talk about that and other topics.
P&C: The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce is critical of your approach to health care reform, saying competition among private insurers has been tried and hasn't worked. How do you respond to that?
DeMint: I was in business for 15 years, and I'm not aware of them. The criticism I saw in their release made me think they didn't read the bill or give it a serious reading. ... I don't know that interstate competition of insurance has been tried unless it was pre-computer age. ... That's kind of -- maybe I shouldn't say dumb -- but a dumb criticism in that they're thinking that competition between private companies won't work so we're going to get a government plan to compete, and that's going to work. Yeah. Just like Medicare creates an extra choice for seniors. You don't see any choices in their health insurance, and you won't.
P&C: Do people have a right to health care? Describe where the government's obligation to provide a safety net ends and where a person's responsibility should begin.
DeMint: I think health care is a privilege. I wouldn't call it a right. ... I do think in our country and in any civil society there should be a safety net for basic health and food and shelter, but that doesn't mean that the whole system should be designed around the belief that people can't make their own decisions, can't be responsible for themselves. ... What we do need to do is make sure everybody has access to policies they can afford, own and keep. We're not doing that. What we've done is set up the whole system to reward employers for offering health insurance, but we don't support people who don't get their insurance at work, and that's not fair.
P&C: What are the most serious things that will happen if nothing changes in the health care arena?
DeMint: If nothing is done, we're likely to end up with a single-payer system anyway in a few years. Every year we're ratcheting down what we're paying doctors and hospitals for Medicare and Medicaid, which means the cost shifting gets greater and fewer employers can offer health insurance. What we're doing is driving the private market out of business anyway, and I think that's why they don't want anything to pass that would make it easier for people to have their own insurance. So if we don't do anything, that's bad too. That's why I made the point -- I could have calibrated my words differently -- that we have to stop the president on this health care thing. ... If it's completely socialized or nationalized, whatever you want to call it, then you've got over half of the American economy in the government hands at some point, and the free enterprise system doesn't work anymore if the government is that involved. So we've got to make a stand here. We've got to stop it. My hope has always been if we could stop them on this ... then we could move on to real freedom solutions that will work in every area of society. That was the last part of my sentence.
P&C: Would you agree this is your highest profile fight, and how important is your success here to your re-election bid next year?
DeMint: I don't know. It's hard to tell. In politics, you're never sure if you're in an echo chamber or if you're really hearing what a lot of people are thinking, but everywhere I go around this state, people are just saying, 'Keep fighting. Thanks for fighting,' and then they'll say, 'What can I do?' That's what I hear everywhere. ... Like the meeting yesterday (on Daniel Island), it seemed like a good mix of citizens who made me feel like a returning hero to come to Charleston, and Charleston is not the hotbed of conservatism anyway. It's a pretty eclectic group here. ... I frankly don't like to be represented in a way that I'm trying to break the president because the whole point was to break his momentum. To stop his rampage. ... A lot of Republicans were sleepwalking this thing along and I think it stirred up a lot of politicians and got the debate going. And I think the president thought he could use it to his advantage, but I think anytime a president is attacking a junior senator, he's off his talking points.
P&C: You are no fan of the government's expanded role in the domestic auto industry or in the nation's financial sector, but which of those interventions bothers you most and why?
DeMint: I'm heartbroken that Chevrolet is owned by the federal government. I grew up in a Camaro. It just doesn't feel right to me. The government has always been heavily involved in the financial sector. ... They'll probably destroy (insurance giant) AIG. Every report I'm getting shows that they're running it into the ground. ... But I think ending up with General Motors and Chrysler owned by the federal government and the unions is horrifying. If Americans aren't horrified by that, nothing is going to shake us.