Sen. Mike Lee, a leader of the ill-fated effort to defund Obamacare that led to a government shutdown, on Tuesday offered a broader vision for the conservative movement that hinges less on flash and fighting than on developing policy goals.
“We're going to have to sharpen our pencils rather than knives,” Lee told the conservative Heritage Foundation. “To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight, we have to win a debate.”
During the congressional budget impasse and resulting 16-day government shutdown, Lee, R-Utah, distinguished himself as the conservative ideas man behind other, more vocal lawmakers at the forefront of the defunding fight, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who staged a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor. Lee aided Cruz as a quiet sidekick, although it was Lee himself who sparked the fight.
Despite losing, Cruz capped his star turn by scheduling a slew of appearances in early-primary states, raising campaign cash and hinting at presidential ambitions. Lee, by contrast, garnered hardly any national buzz — in part because he lacks Cruz’s charisma, many conservatives say — and faced slipping approval ratings at home.
But, as his Heritage speech confirmed, Lee has big ambitions of his own: To broadly shape the policy core of the conservative movement and return it to what he views as its intellectual glory days.
To Lee, that time was in 1980, when Heritage published its seminal “Mandate for Leadership” that shaped the agenda of then-President Reagan's administration -- an era, Lee said, that conservatives still “cling to like a security blanket.”
What's missing in today's brand of conservatism, Lee said, is substance.
“For years we’ve tried to bridge that gulf with tactics, personality and spin,” Lee said. “We must fill the void with new and innovative policy ideas.”
The policies Lee outlined Tuesday include significant changes to the tax code, infrastructure, and post-secondary education accreditation. They likely would have little chance of becoming law in the near term, but Lee stressed the importance of a “unifying agenda” and compassion for the Republican Party, while deriding “outrage, resentment and intolerance” as “gargoyles of the Left.”
“The Republican Party at its best is a party of ideas,” Lee said. “It is ideas that unite and inspire conservatives.”
Lee will continue to sell his vision next month in an important early-primary state when he appears at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Iowa with Sarah Palin.