If you follow national political news, you are probably aware that Utah’s junior U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s rhetoric appears to be undergoing a significant shift. While this swing is undoubtedly influenced by the national backlash from the government shutdown, it is also a bold move, which, if fully realized, brings me some optimism that Lee could be a leader in preventing the Republican Party from devouring itself in a civil war. Ultimately, while Lee may seem an unlikely champion for a more unified GOP, his emerging proposals — if acted upon — could play an important role in addressing our nation’s many challenges.
The civil war narrative intensified when Lee, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, led the charge to defund Obamacare. Both senators were blamed for causing the 16-day shutdown and became Exhibit A of what’s wrong with uncompromising Republicans. Representative of national articles printed during the weeks immediately following the reopening of the government was the Wall Street Journal’s provocatively titled article: “Utah Senator Pays Price Back Home for Shutdown, Republican Critics Say Mike Lee Helped Chart a Course that Weakened the Party and State Economy.” Neil King’s opening paragraph stated, “Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee has found a cold shoulder since returning to one of the reddest states in the country.”
Out of those ashes, however, Lee may be positioning himself to lead a charge that could transform not only his standing with Utah voters, but also, potentially, the direction of the national Republican Party. Michael Gerson, a respected national conservative columnist proclaimed in his Washington Post article entitled “Saving the tea party” that “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.”
Through his recent speeches, interviews and legislation, Lee is demonstrating that he could metamorphose from being viewed as an obstructionist, Republican pariah to an agent for creating a better GOP and a brighter future. In a lecture at the Heritage Foundation — an institution that used to be far more purposeful and far less angry before former Sen. Jim DeMint took charge — Sen. Lee explained his new vision succinctly. First, he stated, “To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight. We have to win a debate. And to do that [w]e need an agenda.” Second, he urged fellow Republicans to engage in a “Great Debate” and cease trying to purge more moderate Republicans from its ranks.
In short, Lee encouraged tea partiers to do more than protest and obstruct and urged them to stop trying to destroy fellow Republicans who might have a slightly different worldview (and who might help the GOP win more elections). Lee also challenged establishment leaders to reconnect with the base to fill the gap in the party. He then explained that the hole in the Republican Party, which divides the establishment from the grassroots, is exactly the size and shape of a positive, unifying agenda. Lee punctuated these notions with an insight: “[F]rustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics.”
Lee has gone on to present “a new, comprehensive anti-poverty agenda that not only corrects — but transcends — existing policies.” He offered broad reform strokes on issues including consolidating and trimming federal government programs, expanding better K-12 education opportunities to underprivileged students, expanding access to higher education and reforming the federal government’s criminal justice and penal system.
More substantively, the senator recently helped introduce the Leahy-Lee Patent Reform bill, which received strong praise from the Obama administration. Lee has further worked on legislation with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) dealing with sentencing reform; Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) on indefinite detention; and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on visa reform. I view these across-the-aisle initiatives as positive and important for Lee, the State of Utah, and the country.
On January 23, 2014, I look forward to hearing more details of these noteworthy proposals when Lee presents “Boston to Philadelphia: A Journey From Protesting the Government We Don't Want to Creating the Government We Do” at the Hinckley Institute. Lee has the credibility, and recent endorsement, of the tea partiers to help lead this movement. My hope is that his words will continue to be more inclusive and productive and — more importantly — that his, and our D.C. leaders’, actions will live up to this rhetoric and deliver real results for all Americans.
Kirk Jowers is the Director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Caplin & Drysdale.