SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee attempted to play Republican Party peacemaker Tuesday in a speech to a Washington, D.C., think tank calling for all conservatives to work together without mentioning the tea party by name.
Lee, who helped lead the unsuccessful battle in Congress against President Barack Obama's health care law that led to the federal government shutdown, said the GOP needs a "unifying" conservative agenda to retake the White House.
Utah's junior senator told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation that such an agenda should focus on ending immobility among the poor, insecurity in the middle class and the "cronyist privilege" enjoyed by the wealthy.
He outlined his own proposals aimed at helping working families, including boosting the federal income tax deduction for having children and reducing the federal gas tax while giving states more control over highways.
The positive tone of his speech will help Lee counter the criticism he's received in Utah and nationally for what many saw as a fight that could not be won, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.
Polls in Utah, including one for the Deseret News and KSL, found that the state's voters did not believe it was worth shutting down the government as part of the effort to stop the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
And Republicans nationally have expressed frustration with Lee and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for reinforcing the image that they're the "Party of No," rather than problem solvers.
"It's not just mending fences back home. It's clear he wants to be part of the national conversation about improving the party," Scala said. "This speech was a way to press the reset button."
That was apparent in the portions of the speech that appeared to be aimed at his fellow tea party followers.
"Especially in the wake of recent controversies, many conservatives are more frustrated with the establishment than ever before. And we have every reason to be," Lee said.
"But however justified, frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative," he said, describing successful political movements as "about identifying converts, not heretics."
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said that while "Lee might be trying to convince 'establishment' Republicans that tea party folks aren't the bad guys," he also advised the tea party to "persuade rather than simply purge."
Hagle, active in the GOP, said that's a warning for that wing of the party not to be "so irritated with establishment Republicans that they 'primary' them and end up with weaker candidates."
While Lee referred to Republicans as grassroots, establishment, conservative, moderate, libertarians and traditionalist, but not tea party, he did bring up the need to continue to fight Obamacare.
Still, he said, there's a need to "step back and ask ourselves where we need to be headed more generally," especially with the prospect of the 2016 presidential elections looming.
Lee compared the party's position now to the 1970s, when conservative activists were pushing Ronald Reagan as a presidential candidate. Reagan lost his 1976 bid to an establishment incumbent, but the movement was vindicated in 1980.
Watch the speech — remarks start at the 53:30 mark:
The difference this time around, Lee said, is that conservatives got together after the initial loss and "transformed a movement that was anti-statist, anti-communist and anti-establishment and made it pro-reform."
Scala said Lee not referring to the tea party in his speech suggests he recognizes it's "a damaged brand name, something that's come and gone" even if the principles espoused by the movement are still around.
Lee won his seat in the Senate after tea party Republicans ousted longtime Sen. Bob Bennett in the party's 2010 state convention, widely seen as the then-new movement's first major victory.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Lee does not appear to be distancing himself from the tea party but looking for ways to "redirect that unhappiness towards goals that are more positive."
That's not likely to make tea party Republicans happy, Burbank said, but if Lee hopes to advance his conservative agenda, he needs to be concerned about his 2016 re-election.
Brigham Young University political science professor Quin Monson, whose polling found Lee's favorability with voters slipping, said he'll be helped by trying "to sound more conciliatory."
That puts Lee in a tough spot with the tea party, Monson said, although he has built up a "pretty large" store of goodwill with them.
"His ardent tea party supporters aren't going to like a conciliatory Mike Lee," Monson said. "If he was to repair some of the damage he's done with the more general electorate, he's going to breed a little suspicion with the tea party base."
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