Mike Lee’s second chance


Some would call any effort by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to move on from the shutdown debacle a reaction to falling poll numbers. But if voter disapproval isn’t a reason to change one’s tune, I don’t know what is. I have been tough on Lee when I thought he deserved it, but I applaud the more constructive effort he rolled out Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation.

This speech is the closest Lee has come to a critique of the right wing and of the shutdown. He called on his party to “step back” and assess where it is headed. He reminded conservatives that the Reagan era was built on a rich intellectual tradition of economic, legal and foreign policy thinkers but said, bluntly, that the right hasn’t done this since. The GOP doesn’t have a message that seems relevant “at all” to much of the country, he said.

Lee described a multi-pronged agenda, including reforms to encourage upward mobility for the poor, expanded child tax credits, flexible worktime for parents, higher education reform and an aggressive attack on cronyism. He encouraged Republicans to put forth a variety of alternatives to Obamacare. He also spoke of an infrastructure plan to decrease traffic and commutes in which states control the money (though said nothing of where the funding would come from).

He ended with a stern admonition to fellow conservatives: “Outrage, resentment and intolerance are gargoyles of the left. For us, optimism is not just a message — it’s a principle.” He warned that “successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics.”

There is a lot to unpack in this speech, but it’s worth mentioning what wasn’t discussed: controversial social issues and immigration. Regarding same-sex marriage, Lee offered a smart admonition that “there is another marriage debate — one concerning fatherless children, economic inequality and broken communities” that deserves as much public attention. Choosing fewer topics and ones that don’t cut across divisions within the GOP is probably smart politics, though I hope on immigration there can be some empathetic treatment of at least those brought here illegally as children.

Lee appears to be declaring independence from those for whom contempt for governance has replaced the desire for good governance. The act of proposing tangible policy initiatives — though more detail is needed on job creation, and there was no mention of debt and entitlement reform — invites discussion, collaboration and compromise.

Now, Lee will have to show he can work constructively with other lawmakers and is willing to take half a loaf to further his policy objectives. It also remains to be seen whether Lee will defend equally creative Republicans caught in the cross hairs of Ted Cruz, Jim DeMint and their ilk and whether he refrains from future political stunts. Until now, Lee has had the luxury of voting no on just about every bargain in Congress, leaving more responsible figures to take the hard votes (which he has then decried). He won’t be able to keep that up and simultaneously claim grown-up status with a serious, affirmative agenda.

Excerpted from washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn

© 2013, The Washington Post.

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