Does Mike Lee have the formula for a GOP resurgence?
The opening of the George W. Bush presidential library in Texas last week has spawned a period of public reflection on legacies and lessons from Bush’s uneven presidency, with former staffers and foes battling over policy issues. It is largely a rehash of old arguments, but it is also a proxy war for the conversation going on across the Right today, a debate over the paths it ought to take on a host of issues to turn around its electoral prospects and reconnect with the American people.
While much of the mass media has focused on Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and other prominent names, an interesting contribution has come from a figure largely unknown to national audiences: Utah Senator Mike Lee.
Lee has solid ideological credentials with conservatives and libertarians. He speaks in some ways as the original Tea Party candidate, the Utah attorney who knocked off incumbent Senator Robert Bennett. In the Senate, he has emerged as a key ally to Paul on foreign policy matters and a significant voice in federalism debates, and he has gained a strong following among libertarians.
Yet Lee’s message about where the Republican Party should go from here, delivered in recent remarks to The Heritage Foundation, focused on issues few libertarians speak publicly about today. Instead of discussing drones, civil liberties, or marijuana, Lee sought to bridge the gap between Burkean conservatism and Randian libertarianism.
“In the last few years, we conservatives seem to have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’… as if their only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism,” Lee said. “This is a mistake. Collective action doesn’t only—or even usually—mean government action. Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the Left, when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire philosophy depends.”
Framing the vision of America as “not an Ayn Rand novel, [but] a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a society of ‘plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too,’” Lee said that although the “great obstacle to realizing this vision today is government dysfunction,” Republicans must change the way they talk about the dangers of big government to better connect with the problems people face in their day to day lives.
Wedding his libertarian inclinations to the communitarianism of his religious faith, Lee has offered and is preparing additional policy proposals that follow this message, ideas designed to remove obstacles for small businesses and working families.
The central challenge he may have to overcome is the Right’s tendency to decry as “social engineering” anything short of the sweeping flatter, fairer code conservatives would like to see. Achieving such a code is unlikely in the short term, and making it politically feasible may require Republicans to recast themselves as the friends of working families, not Wall Street. After so many years of being seen as the party of big business, a shift to the defense of middle-income Americans will require action from the GOP, not just words.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s idea of an American comeback from the malaise of Jimmy Carter was expressed in similarly straightforward terms: family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. Today the Right talks much about work and freedom, but Reagan’s equal emphasis on neighborhood and peace have been largely neglected. And family has largely been an arena of concern only to social conservatives lately, not of libertarians who ought to recognize the family as the most powerful hedge against expanding government and its current decline as a major social problem.
The Right would do well to consider Lee’s call for a rediscovery of the importance of families, civil society, and neighborhood. Concern for individual liberty does not preclude recognition that recovery from the current national malaise will require people working together, “blowing on their hands, pitting their small strength against the inhuman elements of life, … cooperating with a purpose and a spirit that is at the center of creation,” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s words.
It’s time for the GOP to spit on its hands and start working to restore strength to those “little platoons” of which Edmund Burke spoke.
Benjamin Domenech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow for The Heartland Institute.