Last week, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) delivered an address at the Heritage Foundation focused on the future of the Republican Party, on both political and policy grounds. What many people don’t realize is, he might just be that future.
Lee has played second fiddle to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for much of his first term in Congress, but that is changing. Many political commentators have noted that disagreements within the Republican Party focus more on tactics than on policy. No one represents this divide better than Lee.
His tax plan is the most serious piece of Republican legislation that anyone in the party has proposed since Obama took office. He does away with the conservative dream of a flat tax and instead opts for a two bracket system, a 15% rate for individuals making less than $87,850 (double for married couples) and 35% for those making more. The focal point of the plan is a new $2,500 tax credit for every child a family has. Most importantly, the credit applies to both income and payroll taxes so that low-income families who don’t itemize can take advantage of it as well. Lee would also cap the mortgage interest deduction, create a new charitable deduction that’s available to all tax filers and gets rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. The plan aims to collect revenues equal to about 18-20% of GDP.
Wonks and political analysts all over the internet praised Lee’s proposal. but it has received limited attention on the national stage. Instead, Lee is most well-known for the government shutdown, of which he was a fierce supporter. The futile strategy has sent Lee’s approval rating plummeting, with many Utahns insisting that the senator become more willing to compromise. But Lee’s tax plan is a compromise. He doesn’t insist on absurdly low revenues or a huge tax cut for the rich. It’s unclear how progressive (or regressive) the plan is, but it’s a legitimate opening proposal. That’s exactly what Utahns want.
This is what makes Lee’s decision to become Ted Cruz’s sidekick all the more intriguing. Lee could become the face of a new, serious, policy oriented wing of the Republican Party, taking cues from conservative reformists such as Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam and others. Why become a wacko bird and build a reputation as a non-serious thinker? Few people outside of Utah and Washington know of Mike Lee and those who do don’t think of him as a wonk, but that’s exactly what he is.
At Heritage, Lee spoke in platitudes about the future of the Republican Party. More policy proposals will come in future speeches, but he did touch on a couple of other topics that are legitimate conservative ideas as well. He proposed reducing the gas tax over time, putting states in charge of the nation’s highways and mentioned that states could fund it with congestion pricing. In education, Lee wants to give states the right to determine accreditation for student aid. However, the main focus of the speech was pushing the party to adopt a new policy agenda:
By the time we reach November 2016, we will be as far away – chronologically speaking – from Reagan’s election as Reagan’s election was from D-Day. Yet, as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s era agenda like a security blanket. The result is that to many Americans today, especially the underprivileged and middle class or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office, the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all. This is the reason the GOP can seem out of touch and it’s also the reason we find ourselves in such internal disarray. The gaping hole in the middle of the Republican Party today – the one that separates the grassroots from the establishment leaders – is precisely the size and shape of a new, unifying, conservative reform agenda. For years we’ve tried to bridge that goal with tactics and personalities and spin, but it doesn’t work. To revive and reunify our movement, we must fill the void with new and innovative policy ideas. Today, as it was a generation ago, the establishment will not produce that agenda and so once again, conservatives must. We must.
Lee’s new policy agenda should not stop at infrastructure and student aid though. He should continue his focus on smaller government by reforming our intellectual property laws so that they are fit for the modern world. This is an untapped area where conservatives can propose solutions that will restrict the size of government and have them gain mass appeal. Lee should jump on that opportunity. He should also implore states to reduce housing and occupational licensing restrictions, both of which will lead to increased economic growth. Farm subsidies and corporate welfare are also areas that he should attack.
However, proposing these ideas to a favorable crowd of D.C. insiders is not enough. To have any effect, Lee must make an impact on the Republican Party on a national scale. That’s his next challenge. How does he transition his image from one of reckless sidekick to thoughtful reformer? Doing so is not easy. But liberals should not take the difficulty of that as reason to ignore the young senator. Through his antics, Lee has earned the valuable support of the Tea Party. If he is able to earn national attention for his ideas, he’ll possess the dual credentials as radical Tea Partier and serious conservative policy wonk. That role was once misleadingly filled by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who somehow managed to gain credibility as a serious thinker while proposing a budget so extreme that House Republicans couldn’t even pass the policies this summer. After Ryan’s defeat on the Romney ticket last year, that office is empty. Lee now has the opportunity to fill it.