Yesterday’s announcement that Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) is leaving the U.S. Senate to replace Edwin J. Feulner as president of The Heritage Foundation surprised the political establishment in Washington and underlined Heritage’s role as a key institution for America’s future. The Washington Post declared on its front page: “DeMint says he can advance conservative ideas better at Heritage.”

DeMint’s selection as president comes three years after Feulner, president for 35 years, told Heritage’s board of trustees he would be retiring in 2013. DeMint, who came to Washington in 1998 as a congressman from South Carolina, told a packed Heritage auditorium yesterday that it was the only job that would lure him away from the Senate.

“This organization is in a position to do more to save our country than any other organization I’m aware of,” DeMint told the staff, noting that Heritage inspired him to enter public service. “I believe that we have put together here the power, the muscle, the ideas to turn things around.”

>>> Watch our video with clips of DeMint’s speech to Heritage staff

DeMint will take leadership of Heritage at a time when conservatives are facing significant challenges in Washington. The clock is ticking toward the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. Beyond that immediate challenge are opposite visions for solving America’s entitlement crisis, protecting the country from enemies, and ensuring that our Constitution continues to guide decisions in the halls of government.

Following their remarks to Heritage staff yesterday, DeMint and Feulner joined Rush Limbaugh on his radio program. Together they outlined how Heritage would confront these challenges. Here’s an edited excerpt:

RUSH: What’s happening to make this happen now, Ed?

FEULNER: Well, as you know, about three years ago I told our board of trustees that, “Look ahead, gentlemen and ladies. I am going to be 71, and it is time for us to find a successor, and we’ve got to find somebody who’s absolutely committed to our firm principles here at Heritage and who knows the sanctity of our research and who can lead Heritage to the next level.” And, boy, have we got that guy.

RUSH: Senator Jim DeMint, Why have you decided to retire from the Senate to take this on?

DeMINT: Rush, it was The Heritage Foundation that inspired me to run for Congress, and many of the policies I’ve developed, whether it be Social Security reform or health care reform, tax reform, Heritage has guided that policy development. And I believe that I can do more good for the conservative movement outside of the Senate in leveraging the assets of The Heritage Foundation to communicate a more positive, optimistic message to the American people.

During the interview, Feulner quoted Senator-elect Ted Cruz (R-TX), who called DeMint “a friend, and hero, and a patriot.” Cruz added, “His combination of brilliance, principle, common sense, creativity and–above all else–courage will be an ideal fit for the conservative movement’s leading think tank.”

Leaders across the ideological spectrum — from the conservative Family Research Council to the libertarian Reason Foundation, and even the progressive Center for American Progress — offered encouraging words about DeMint’s selection.

There’s good reason to be optimistic. After more than three decades of Feulner’s leadership — in which he transformed Heritage into “the Parthenon of the conservative metropolis,” according to The New York Times — DeMint seizes the reins with an energized staff ready to tackle America’s thorniest problems with new and innovative policy solutions.

Quick Hits:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports this morning that “The unemployment rate edged down to 7.7 percent in November. The number of unemployed persons, at 12.0 million, changed little.”
  • The majority of federal agencies are not “fulfilling the president’s promise of an open and transparent government for the American people,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont at the conclusion of a government audit.
  • More than 2,000 people are gathering at Pearl Harbor today to mark the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack there.
  • The Michigan legislature is moving forward on a right-to-work law that would allow workers to decline paying union dues if they do not want to be part of a union.
  • President Obama has already raised taxes on “the rich”—through Obamacare. Join us at noon ET for a Google+ Hangout discussion. You can tweet questions for our experts to @Heritage.