Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) is the founder of the Tea Party Caucus, a true limited-government firebrand. But the potential presidential candidate is launching a war on poverty. So is Mitt Romney’s running-mate Paul Ryan, the Congressman from Wisconsin known for his budget-cutting schemes. He too is a likely presidential contender.
After the jump, stories about both efforts. What do you make of this?
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.
Lee’s tea party qualifications are beyond question. He co-founded the congressional Tea Party Caucus. He helped discover Ted Cruz. His advocacy for the government shutdown was impeccably irrational. Lee is a man in whom FreedomWorks can find no fault.
Few have done more to burn ideological bridges within the GOP. Yet no one from the tea party side is now doing more to construct them.
In a series of speeches, Lee made the case that populist resentment has little lasting influence without policy innovation and political outreach. “Frustration is not a platform,” he recently told a Heritage Foundation audience. “Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. . . . American conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude and cooperation, and trust, and above all, hope. It is also about inclusion. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics.”
Lee has been proselytizing for a “comprehensive anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda” — making him one of the few Republican politicians talking in any sustained way about stalled economic mobility, stagnant middle-class wages and economic inequality. To this, Lee has added a dollop of populist “anti- cronyism,” proposing to simplify the tax code and rein in the big banks.
Setting aside the policy details, Lee makes strikingly sane observations about the Republican future. Populist energy is useful only when channeled into an appealing public agenda. That agenda must address economic conditions faced by the poor and working class. The obviousness of these points has not prevented many Republicans from missing them. Lee’s recognition of political reality has distinguished him. While firmly denying any presidential aspirations, Lee is one of the few Republicans giving speeches that are presidential in ambition and quality.
But policy details refuse, in the end, to be set aside. Given Lee’s tea party belief in strictly enumerated constitutional powers, what role is left to government in a “comprehensive, anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda”? Lee answered with a gutsy — and perhaps not entirely consistent — ideological move. He has embraced limited but energetic government to promote the compassionate work of civil society and to encourage economic opportunity. While rejecting the centralization of government power, Lee is willing to use government to empower communities and individuals.
In a recent speech, Lee called for “a new, bold and heroic offensive in the war on poverty” — hardly the language of your average tea party rally. The historical models he employed were taken from Mormonism (his religious background) and from Abraham Lincoln — both rich communitarian traditions.
“For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition,” he asserted, “our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.” As evidence of the practical value of these social virtues, he cited Utah’s safety net, in which government, church-run charities and volunteers cooperate to provide benefits while encouraging self-sufficiency.
Since February, Ryan (R-Wis.) has been quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods with another old Kemp ally, Bob Woodson, the 76-year-old civil rights activist and anti-poverty crusader, to talk to ex-convicts and recovering addicts about the means of their salvation.Ryan’s staff, meanwhile, has been trolling center-right think tanks and intellectuals for ideas to replace the “bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs” that Ryan blames for “wrecking families and communities” since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964.
Next year, for the 50th anniversary of that crusade, Ryan hopes to roll out an anti-poverty plan to rival his budgetary Roadmap for America’s Future in scope and ambition. He is also writing a book about what’s next for the GOP, recalling the 1979 tome that detailed Kemp’s vision under the subtitle, “The Brilliant Young Congressman’s Plan for a Return to Prosperity.”
Ryan “has always been more than the budget guy. His vision is much broader than that,” said Bill Bennett, a conservative political theorist who worked with Kemp at Empower America, where Ryan got his start. “You can’t be the governing party unless you offer people a way out of poverty.”