SALT LAKE CITY — Conservatives need to start making a better case for what they stand for, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Monday in a speech to a Washington, D.C., think tank intended to influence the direction of the GOP.
Too often, Lee told an audience at the Heritage Foundation, liberals control the debate on an issue by proposing an idea opposed by conservatives to reinforce what he called a "false narrative" that conservatives are only against ideas.
He said conservatives need to remind Americans — and perhaps the Republican Party — that they have a vision for the country built on both a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society.
Lee's comments to the conservative think tank come as a debate is underway in the Senate on a sweeping immigration proposal and follows the rapid defeat last week of legislation dealing with another controversial issue — gun control.
Utah's junior senator helped lead the failed fight to stall debate on the gun control bill spurred by the deadly school shooting in Connecticut and was among the GOP majority that rejected its key provision — expanding background checks for gun buyers.
"The fact that we need to state clearly what it is we're for doesn't mean we can't be against things," Lee said, adding that the speech was not meant to counter any criticism of his role in the gun control debate.
If the question is "whether I gave the speech because I felt compelled to do so in order to blunt any criticism coming from the left, the answer is no," he said. "This is not that kind of speech."
The purpose of his address, Lee said, "is to explain that we as Republicans need to focus on more than just limiting government, because limiting government is not an end in itself."
He described his vision of conservatism as "a strong voluntary civil society operating within a free market economy" where individuals and families can prosper.
"It's also something I sometimes refer to as the 'Utah model,'" Lee said.
Outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, who has said he may run for the Senate, said conservatives "have to get past the rhetoric and soundbites" to end the gridlock gripping the nation's Capitol.
"Republicans in Washington have been on defense for two years," Wright said. "Lee and other Republicans are learning that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Lee has hurt himself with the state's GOP majority as well as Democrats.
"He's getting politically scared. He's decided to break this spell of political negativity," Dabakis said. "Both Democrats and Republicans are saying, 'Who is this guy and what narrow little interest does he represent?' I think he's vulnerable in his party."
Lee, who ousted longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett two years ago, won't be up for reelection until 2016. University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Lee's speech suggests he's already thinking about the campaign ahead.
"I suspect what he's most directly speaking about is his own political future," Burbank said.
Lee's message is "good for the party and good for him as well" since they have been criticized for "saying no, no, no without offering any realistic alternatives," he said.
Burbank cited Lee's leadership in the effort to filibuster the gun control bill rather than simply voting against it.
"The bigger problem is he seemed to want to derail any discussion of the whole issue," Burbank said. "You come across as just obstructionist and unwilling to compromise and engage in politics."
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, who is active in the Republican Party, said Lee's speech identifies a key problem facing the GOP, "being tagged as the party of 'No.'"
Hagle said Lee's attempt at slowing down the push for the gun control legislation, coming largely from President Barack Obama, "was not a bad thing, but the messaging hurt Republicans."
Now, though, Hagle said Lee's pitch for more positivity may resonate with the national party. The GOP has been in search of a new way to reach voters since Mitt Romney lost his bid for the White House in November.
Speaking to an organization like the Heritage Foundation, which attracts opinion leaders, is a good start at influencing not only the party's direction, but who the next Republican presidential nominee will be, Hagle said.
And Lee could be positioning himself for a role in a GOP administration, Hagle said. "He's making a name for himself," the Iowa professor said. "Maybe this is a way to move the party forward."
Lee said impacting the 2016 race for the White House is the "whole purpose of having a vision and a way of messaging that vision." He said he doesn't have a favorite candidate yet in that race.
"Our party, given what we experienced in 2012, stands to benefit from anything that will allow us to help people understand why the conservative message works," Lee said.