Utah has been thrust into the spotlight lately with Sen. Mike Lee’s effort to defund Obamacare along with his outspoken brother in arms, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Some say the fight and subsequent government shutdown has caused a dip in his approval rating within the state, leaving many wondering if the fight was worth the consequences. I recently had a chance to speak with Lee, and he paints a very different picture than his critics, and he spoke of the recent infighting within his own party.
Recent media coverage in Utah and nationally has focused on a BYU poll and a DeseretNews/KSL.com poll, which show a decline in Lee’s favorability ratings, a rise in disapproval ratings and disagreement with shutting down the government over the president's health care overhaul. Nationally, reports of Republican disapproval of Lee have been written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Newsmax.com, among others.
A key question in the DeseretNews/KSL.com poll was about the senator's role in the recent government shutdown — something Lee vehemently denies was ever his intention.
“This is one of the most important aspects of the entire course of events I think has been completely underreported; not just underreported, but unreported at all," Lee said. "What we wanted was never a government shutdown; we never wanted that, we never needed that, we never advocated for that.
“We presented the best plan possible for avoiding a shutdown — arguably the only plan to avoid a shutdown in this circumstance. What I mean by that is we have been operating in an odd way in Washington for 4½ years. The regular process involves passing a dozen appropriation bills to fund different aspects of government to go category by category to fund defense, transportation, agricultural programs; but when you operate with a continuing resolution as we have for the past four years, you lump everything together.”
Lee believes that this method of funding government is not only built on bad negotiating tactics, but also moves Congress into shady territory at times.
“The problem with doing that is you put members of Congress in a position of colluding. It’s not really compromise, in my opinion, to pass a continuing resolution again and again. It’s not really good for the people we serve. It’s sometimes only good for the political establishment," Lee said. "Those in office want to remain in office, and they seek first and foremost to avoid political risk. Just passing something to keep government funded at current levels is touted as a compromise, but it’s really an act of collusion in the sense that they know this isn’t good for the people. It’s not a good way to legislate, it’s not a good way to govern — but we are going to do this because it’s the least awkward way to get things done."
One of the largest criticisms of Lee on local talk radio programs such as the Rod Arquette Show on KNRS and the Doug Wright Show on KSL Radio has revolved around his perceived unwillingness to compromise. I asked the senator if that was the case and he rejected that premise outright and calls it a “distraction.” Lee says the “political establishment” espouses the narrative that Republicans caused the shutdown, and the media is “happy to carry their water quite dutifully.”
“What was wanted, of course, was a repeal of Obamacare, but we realized we weren’t likely to get that with the current political climate, so we resorted to a compromise position to fund all of government and defund Obamacare indefinitely. Senate Democrats rejected that," Lee said. "The House resorted to another compromise position: let’s fund everything else in government but delay Obamacare for one year. They rejected that too. More than a dozen of those measures passed, and yet the Senate Democrats refused to pass them and they dug in their heels and said, 'unless you fund everything in government, we won’t fund anything in government.' That is not compromise.”
Since the health care law's insurance exchanges opened for enrollment on Oct. 1, a host of issues have cropped up with the federal government's website. Aside from technical issues and glitches, another bone of contention has been the granting of mandate exceptions for big business and unions but not for individual citizens.
In July, the House voted to delay the individual mandate for one year with 229 votes from Republicans and 22 votes from Democrats, to 173 Democratic votes and one Republican vote. The measure was not taken up for a vote on the floor of the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid.
While poll results showing disapproval of Lee and his actions in the Senate might be more nuanced than they appear on the surface, Lee doesn’t place much stock in those numbers either way.
“The only numbers that matter to me at this point are those that reflect how people are doing," Lee said. "People are losing their jobs and find it difficult to find one after losing it, having their hours cut or their wages slashed or having their health care plan disappear after being promised they could keep the plan they liked — that’s why I started this effort."
Knowing there was an uphill fight and little chance of winning didn't deter Lee from what he calls a sacred obligation to keep his oath to the people of Utah and the Constitution. In March, the Utah Legislature passed a resolution calling on all of the states' congressional delegations to come up with a workable alternative to Obamacare, partially due to the law's costs for Utah families, businesses and individuals. Whether Utahns approve of the job he’s doing or not, he feels strongly that he is bound by that resolution and his devotion to the Constitution and he seemed quite sincere in his explanation of why he is causing such a fuss.
“It’s important to remember sometimes a fight is worth fighting; sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to fight, even when victory is far from certain," Lee said. "A lot of the most important efforts in American history, and in the history of our state for that matter, have been undertaken in circumstances when victory was far from certain. Fortunately there were individuals that didn’t shrink from the fight strictly because they weren’t sure they could win.
“Too often in Washington we have people who won’t do anything that poses any political risk, they won’t do anything unless there is virtually a certain political gain for them personally and won’t do anything that could pose political risk or discomfort for the elected officials involved. I think that’s unfortunate. We need them to stand especially when it’s hard.”
With the apparent schism within the GOP, talk of a third party emerging has begun to ramp up, and I asked Lee where his interest level was on the subject and it's something Lee doesn’t feel is necessary yet. He said he believes America is waking up to the trouble ahead and that there is an opportunity to revitalize the Republican Party and put it in a position to step into a leadership role.
“I think we’ve reached a point where Americans are sufficiently alarmed by what the federal government is doing," Lee said. "It’s intruding into an area that is so outside the realm of where the federal government should be and it’s doing so in such a destructive manner — a manner that threatens so many people’s health and livelihoods — that I think they are starting to recognize we need the Republican Party to stand up and defend the rights of the people against the government."
Polls can have a way of leading a response some times and interpretations of those results can be nuanced, but whatever the reason for the drop in the senator's approval rating, don’t expect much to change. Love him or hate him, Sen. Lee appears to be as committed to his cause as they come, and he says he will do what he feels is in the best interest of his constituents. The media might appear to be “dutifully carrying the water” to some — but take this chance to read the senator's own words and either take it or leave it based on the merit of its content.
Jonathan Boldt is the Deseret Connect preps editor generating content for both DeseretNews.com and KSL.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can buy his new book at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EYMOF9W/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_mv6jsb19AG2