"We have accomplished little more than to slow the growth of spending, slow the growth of debt, slow the growth of regulations," the former senator from South Carolina told a breakfast audience at the American Legislative Exchange Council's policy conference on Thursday. "It's very unlikely, after all the promises, that we're going to repeal Obamacare and eliminate the federal control of health care."
For members of ALEC, a 45-year old think tank that helps state legislators craft libertarian-leaning policy, this wasn't news. Six months into Donald Trump's presidency, little of his agenda has made it through Congress. Medicaid has not been transformed into a block-grant program. Tax reform keeps sliding down the calendar. In February, Trump proposed an ambitious school voucher program; last week, the Republican-controlled Senate quietly smothered it.
Washington's slide into quicksand has given Republican state legislators and governors new enthusiasm to restrict the federal government. Among the hundreds of legislators at the conference, there was a surge of interest in constitutional amendments, which could pass by getting two-thirds of states to call conventions under Article V of the Constitution. Republicans control 33 state legislatures; having 34 could light the match, reshaping federal power to make laws like the Affordable Care Act impossible.
"Do you trust Congress to reform itself, or do you trust the state legislatures to come in and do the right thing?" asked Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) at another session. "Did the Founding Fathers foresee exactly what would happen in this situation, with Congress acting in its own self-interest and the president gladly accepting more and more power? Did they foresee this and say, this is why we are authorizing an Article V convention of the states? Absolutely!"
The Article V movement, which gained traction during Barack Obama's presidency, has gotten a fresh boost from Washington's recent struggles. DeMint, who was ousted as president of the Heritage Foundation just three months ago, has quickly become Article V's most credible booster.
"So many look to Washington to make America great again," DeMint said at one ALEC panel. "Washington cannot do it and it will not do it."
According to ALEC, states are on their way to perfecting government. Vendors at Denver's downtown Hyatt Regency offered booklets on how states slashed back their tax burden under Republican control; maps showed states being colored in blue as they passed right-to-work laws.
"In an environment of slow movement in D.C., states are feeling more empowered," said Jonathan Williams, ALEC's chief economist. "Not only can they act - they should act. They should be the laboratories of democracy on tax relief, on reform."
The Trump administration had only a modest presence at the conference. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech, followed by a friendly interview, and talked up her department's work "to review the previous administration's most costly and harmful regulations." Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, made an appearance that was closed to the press.
But for the most part, the Trump administration was an afterthought - less threatening to conservative states than the Obama administration, but seen as struggling in ways that were best not talked about. On Friday, as Sean Spicer resigned as White House press secretary, the nine televisions in the hotel's lobby bar were tuned to golf games and sports talk shows. Newt Gingrich, whose book "Understanding Trump" was provided to every attendee of his Friday luncheon speech, showered the president with praise. But the former House speaker admitted Washington Republicans could wreck the gains state legislators had made.
"We have to have very dramatic economic growth in the first quarter of next year, or we're going to get killed in the election," Gingrich said. "We need a tax cut. It would be nice to get tax reform, but I don't think we can get it by Thanksgiving."
The health-care drama hasn't built confidence that the administration could power through a tax cut. "It's just more evidence that the comments you hear coming out of Washington are based on talking points, not on convictions to act," said Jennifer Fielder, a state senator from Montana. "I know there's a lot of polling, but when the time comes to do something right, the leadership kind of shrinks back."
That angst powered a series of Article V-oriented speeches and breakout sessions, with legislators filling rooms past capacity before one-on-one sessions with DeMint, former Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn or Citizens for SelfGovernance president Mark Meckler. "If you were not already convinced that D.C. will never fix itself, this week should have convinced you," Meckler said at one session.
The legislative conventionstill requires a hard sell. There are two Article V efforts underway, running on parallel tracks. One calls for a balanced-budget amendment, a concept that had been approved by 28 states. The other, backed by Meckler, Coburn and DeMint, was for a convention that would propose at least three constitutional fixes: spending limits, limited federal jurisdiction over policy and term limits. Two states have passed bills to start Article V conventions.
At one crowded session, DeMint and Coburn found themselves reassuring legislators, who worried they'd be accused of plotting "runaway conventions," telling them to insist that truly bad ideas couldn't get the supermajorities to pass.
"You gotta get over it," Coburn told one skittish legislator. "Are you just going to let us fall like every other republic?
Time was of the essence for the convention plans, according to speakers. Several state legislators, citing the GOP's ability to win the year's special House races, suggested that the party was in a good position to add to its control of 33 state legislatures. Some, echoing Gingrich, worried that a midterm backlash could put the convention plan out of reach.
"There are some positive indications that the Republican control at the state level could be expanded," said DeMint. "But if Trump continues to be stymied, the dynamic could change. So we've got to be prepared for both scenarios."