Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What do we make of Utah's junior senator, Mike Lee?
J. Scott Applewhite, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Utah Sen. Mike Lee is receiving extensive national media attention, especially for threatening a filibuster on gun control legislation, opposing Obama administration appointments and other tactics. We review the questions politicos are asking about our junior senator.
Is Lee's prominence in national conservative circles a permanent or temporary dynamic?
Pignanelli: "I'm conservative, but I'm not a nut about it." — George H. W. Bush
Every day I field inquiries about Sen. Lee and always respond that he was a bright star among an illuminated constellation of super achievers in the Jon Huntsman administration. As Huntsman's General Counsel, Lee established a reputation of a solid lawyer with steely intelligence, political savvy, friendly demeanor and accessibility to reasonable points of view. Then most listeners smirk "Is this the same guy in the Senate?" The harsh rhetoric of Lee's perceived allies has shrouded him, regardless of his intentions otherwise.
The GOP controls the U.S. House and dominates governors' mansions and state houses. Thus, Americans clearly support a right of center philosophy that reflects modern concerns. But the country rejects the far right narrow view typified by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (current director of the Heritage Foundation). DeMint and company are offering the Sony Walkman of political thought while Americans want an Apple iPod. Many politicos hope Sen. Lee will distance himself from this shrinking circle and join movements with real promise (i.e. Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., etc.).
His image is improving. National politicos are noticing that Sen. Lee is sprinkling words like "community" and "togetherness" while espousing conservative doctrines. His book analyzing the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare will be released soon (even I ordered an advance e-version). Observers are attributing these positive development to Sen. Lee's new Chief of Staff, the competent and gregarious Boyd Matheson.
Webb: With DeMint gone from the Senate, Sen. Lee, Ted Cruz, R-TX, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are viewed as the three hard-core conservative ideologues filling the vacuum, with Sen. Cruz and Sen. Paul receiving a lot more attention than Sen. Lee. I'm pleased that Sen. Lee is showing some nuance and sophistication in his conservative views. I thought his recent Heritage Foundation speech was refreshing because he related in practical ways how following conservative principles benefit the lives of regular people, while liberal programs hurt people long-term. I saw a more pragmatic Mike Lee, who made a strong case for the problem-solving and compassionate side of conservatism — how to really help low-income folks, people with disabilities, fatherless children, etc. He showed he's not trying to throw grandma off a cliff or let poor children go hungry. Just the opposite.
I firmly agree with Sen. Lee that many liberal programs are dooming generations to poverty and crime. What I haven't heard from him or anyone else is how we make the transition from the welfare state to an opportunity society. If we cut too fast and too deeply it will be terribly wrenching for society, and voters simply won't accept drastic measures. They will throw conservatives out of office. The hardest thing is making the transition. It has to be done carefully, and over time.
Does Sen. Lee reflect traditional Utah values or is he too extreme?
Pignanelli: Republicans swamped the 2012 precinct caucuses and primaries to support a practical and humane conservative mainstream philosophy that is dramatically different from Rush Limbaugh nightmares. Utah boasts a tradition of conservative firebrands in Congress who built coalitions of various interests to construct substantive legislation. But ultraconservatives would rather have officials pass ideological litmus tests than bills to solve problems (explaining the demise of the tea party). Right-wingers hope to restrain Sen. Lee in their little box of tiny ideas, but his assets have the potential of defining solutions — which is what Utahns really want.