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Michael Gerson: Utah Sen. Mike Lee emerges as a communitarian

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — For those who expect and fear an irrepressible conflict between the tea party and the Republican establishment, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is a hopeful anomaly. Should this anomaly become a trend, the GOP's future would be considerably brighter.

Lee's tea party qualifications are beyond question. He co-founded the congressional tea party caucus. He helped discover Ted Cruz. His advocacy for the recent government shutdown was impeccably irrational. Lee is a man in whom FreedomWorks can find no fault.

Few have done more to burn ideological bridges within the GOP. Yet no one, from the tea party side, is now doing more to construct them.

In a series of speeches, Lee has made the case that populist resentment has little lasting influence without policy innovation and political outreach. "Frustration is not a platform," he recently told a Heritage Foundation audience, "Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. ... American conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude and cooperation, and trust, and above all, hope. It is also about inclusion. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics."

Lee proselytizes for a "comprehensive anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda" — making him one of the few Republican politicians in America talking in any sustained way about stalled economic mobility, stagnant middle-class wages and economic inequality. To this, Lee adds a dollop of populist "anti-cronyism," proposing to simplify the tax code and rein in the big banks.

Setting aside the policy details, Lee is making some strikingly sane observations about the Republican future. Populist energy is useful only when channeled into an appealing public agenda. And that agenda must somehow address economic conditions faced by the poor and working class. The obviousness of these points has not prevented many Republicans from missing them. Lee's recognition of political reality distinguishes him. While firmly denying any presidential aspirations, Lee is one of the few Republicans giving speeches that are presidential in ambition and quality.

But policy details refuse, in the end, to be set aside. Given Lee's tea party belief in strictly enumerated constitutional powers, what role is left to government in a "comprehensive, anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda"? Lee answers with a gutsy — and perhaps not entirely consistent — ideological move. He embraces limited but energetic government to promote the compassionate work of civil society and to encourage economic opportunity. While rejecting the centralization of government power, Lee is willing to use government to empower communities and individuals.

In a recent speech, Lee calls for "a new, bold and heroic offensive in the war on poverty" — hardly the language of your average tea party rally. The historical models he employs are taken from Mormonism (his own religious background) and from Abraham Lincoln — both rich communitarian traditions.

"For all America's reputation for individualism and competition," he asserts, "our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation." As evidence of the practical value of these social virtues, he cites Utah's remarkable safety net, in which government, church-run charities and volunteers cooperate to provide benefits while encouraging self-sufficiency.

Lee goes on to praise Lincoln's activism in creating the preconditions for economic opportunity: dredging rivers, building canals, broadening land ownership, founding land grant universities. "These public goods weren't designed to make poverty more tolerable," he says, "but to make it more temporary."

The subtext here is not a challenge to establishment Republicanism, which would offer no ideological objection to the role of government that Lee describes. The real contrast is with libertarianism, particularly of the Rand Paul variety. And Lee comes close to making his criticism explicit. "Freedom means 'we're all in this together,'" he says. "The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It's a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation of 'plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.'"

This is a good, general prescription for Republican recovery: More Frank Capra. Less Ayn Rand.

Lee's specific agenda — increasing the child tax credit, promoting flextime, building transportation infrastructure and replacing Obamacare with a market-oriented alternative — is only half formed. But it is well within the broad tradition of reform conservatism, of empowerment conservatism, even (though Lee would probably be loath to admit it) of compassionate conservatism.

Mike Lee's conception of the tea party's future is hardly predominant within the movement, but it is fully consistent with Republican success. And might even help ensure it.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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