Tea Party activists want to draft Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to run for president in 2016, but the first-term senator has a higher priority: establishing the Tea Party as a permanent force in American politics by rewriting the Republican policy playbook.
Lee gave a detailed prescription for solving America's “inequality crisis” in the Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address, replete with praise for specific bills introduced by various lawmakers in the House and Senate. The speech got some Tea Party activists hoping he'll run for president in 2016.
"You would not believe how many people have emailed me, texted me, contacted me saying 'Mike Lee for president, Mike Lee for president,' " Amy Kremer, president of the Tea Party Express, sponsor of the now-annual response to President Obama's State of the Union, told the Washington Examiner. "He really connected with people with his State of the Union speech. I think that's fantastic."
But Lee said he has “no desire” for that job.
“The Senate has enough people running for president, and I'm not," he said. Asked why he would not run, Lee rejected the premise of the question. “The question of running for president isn't really a ‘why not?’ thing; it's more of a ‘why?’ thing.”
Lee said it's "funny and surprising" that some conservatives would call for his candidacy, but he is not surprised at the eagerness of the Tea Party, best known for opposing Obamacare, to find a proactive agenda.
“At some point — while we have to continue to express our disapproval of government policies that are bad — at some point we have to move on to the point where we're also embracing the kind of government we do want," Lee told the Washington Examiner. “We knew that we would end up here, but, you know, it has taken us some time to move from our 'Boston moment' to our 'Philadelphia moment.' "
With the Boston-to-Philadelphia Image, Lee hearkens back to his victory speech on election night in 2010, when he said the conservative activists who took their name from the American Revolution needed to imitate their predecessors by offering a governing vision in the spirit of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He regards that process as "the natural course that the conservative movement takes." The first Philadelphia moment led to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and George Washington's election as president.
Given his credibility with the base, but absence of presidential ambition, Lee occupies a unique position in the Senate, one that might allow him to to harness the energy of the Tea Party toward an effective push for smaller government, while avoiding the policy mistakes of contemporary Democrats and big-spending George W. Bush-era Republicans. If no one views him as a rival, presidential candidates, for instance, can collaborate with him without fearing that doing so will undermine their own ambitions.
If that fails in 2014, the 42-year-old senator can always get back to work in 2015. Given his disinterest in running for president, Lee could anchor the conservative wing of the Senate for years to come.
Lee suggested a presidential candidacy might distract him from this effort. "I'm glad that one of the things that I don't have to worry about is how [my policy agenda] would affect a bid for the White House," Lee said. "So, yeah, I think that is liberating in some respects."
He has made use of that freedom since October, following a government shutdown that unfolded when he and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, initiated an effort to eliminate funding for Obamacare when the continuing resolution that had previously funded government expired.
"A month like the one we have been through should lead us not only to re-commit to this essential, ongoing struggle, but also to step back and ask ourselves where we should be headed more generally," he said at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 29, less than two weeks after the end of the shutdown.
He has set about answering that question with a series of legislative proposals: a tax reform proposal built around expanding the child tax credit, a "Working Families Flexibility Act" that would allow parents to take comp time instead of overtime pay, a plan to devolve transportation spending to the states and an overhaul of the higher education accrediting system designed to make college cheaper.
"He understands that the conservative agenda is about transforming Washington from cronyism and business-as-usual toward policies that empower individuals," Cruz said of his best friend in the Senate in a statement highlighting two aspects of Lee's conservative reform agenda. "Mike has been helping lead that charge since he came to Washington — working to stop Obamacare and now advancing welfare reform and higher education reform. He is an invaluable leader in the battle to advance the conservative cause, fight for limited government and defend liberty."
An aide to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., credited Lee's speeches and legislative proposals with starting a policy debate within the Republican Party that has involved rank and file lawmakers as well as party leaders and prospective presidential candidates, such as Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
"His construction of immobility for lower-income folks, insecurity for middle-income folks [and] cronyism at the top is a really good way to frame and think through some of those challenges that are really pulling our communities apart," the aide told the Examiner, emphasizing that Lee has begun a debate in the party rather than taken control of of the legislative debate. "It's that leading by example that I think has been where Mike Lee has really distinguished himself."
Top Senate Democrats have not balked at working with Lee on some issues, his Tea Party status notwithstanding. He has joined with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to write the Smarter Sentencing Act, a prison reform bill coming together as the Washington consensus moves against the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug offenses. Lee is also working with Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to update an electronic privacy law.
"The law, as written, purports to give the government the power to read your emails, to seize your emails, after they're ripened to the age of 180 days old," he explained. "It was written in another era when nobody really saw email as something that would ever embody a significant amount of private, protected communications. So we're trying to fix that. I think that could pass."
Some political observers see Lee as trying to reinvent himself after the shutdown fight — Lee stands by that effort, especially in light of the recent employer mandate delay, saying that "our use of the power of the purse is the best check on executive overreach that we can hope for" — but it's also possible that the shutdown fight increased his political capital for the legislative push, at least among the base.
Kremer, for instance, regards him as the effective heir to former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. -- who resigned from Congress to focus on policy as Heritage's president -- and the intellectual leader of the Tea Party, in and out of Congress.
"He is the one that has not necessarily been on the front lines, but he's the brains behind a lot of stuff -- like defund Obamacare, that was his vision, that was his baby," she recalled to the Examiner. "He is the one that has the ability to pull us all together and to be that glue that gets us all on the same page. ... He sees the different strengths and weaknesses of all us and where we can, you know, what needs to be done, and what needs to be filled." (Lee came up with the idea to use the expiring continuing resolution to defund the health care law, but Cruz put it into legislative form.)
The acrimonious disagreement over the shutdown fight among Senate Republicans damaged Lee's relationship with some colleagues, but a Republican staffer whose boss opposed the attempt to defund Obamacare doesn't think that bad memories will thwart his agenda.
"I think it's unquestionable that he's been leading the discussion," the Senate aide said. "And I think that that's a helpful way to overcome whatever damage he did to relationships that he had [in the conference]."
Lee said he talks regularly to rank-and-file and leadership in the House, "and they all love it," although he stopped short of claiming to have united the two wings of the lower chamber. Last week, he introduced a welfare reform bill carried on the House side by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Meanwhile, as Lee tries to gather support from GOP lawmakers for a common legislative agenda, he's also following DeMint's example of looking for new allies among those running in Republican primaries.
"I interview candidates all the time, oftentimes several each week, and I'll be making some endorsements this year," Lee told the Examiner. "We discuss [the conservative reform agenda] with candidates when they come in and gauge their support for it, and it's one of the many things we take into account."
In spite of his growing profile, Lee talked down the idea that he's more of a policy leader than some of his higher-profile conservative colleagues.
"I work closely with Ted Cruz and with Rand Paul and with Marco Rubio, and there's a lot of overlap between all four of us — with one very striking difference being that I'm not running for president, and, they might be," he said.
But will the conservative reform agenda he champions emerge as a new "Contract with America" for the 2014 elections?
"It's certainly time for us to unite behind an agenda," Lee replied. "No party and no political movement can maintain its vitality without renewing the content of its message and updating it so that it matches the times, the changing circumstances. And it certainly is time for us to unite behind an affirmative agenda."