Mike Lee Is The Tea Party’s Resident Wonk

Mike Lee speaks at Heritage.

Mike Lee speaks at Heritage.

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.

Will Rand Paul Filibuster Janet Yellen?

Will Paul filibuster Yellen?

Will Paul filibuster Yellen?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced today that he plans to place a “hold” on Fed Chair nominee Janet Yellen. By doing so, Paul sets himself up to perform another filibuster as he did against the nomination of CIA head John Brennan last February. It’s not clear at all that Paul will filibuster Yellen if Harry Reid ignores his “hold” and proceeds with the nomination. Paul’s demanding a vote on his bill to audit the Fed, something that his father pushed for years.

A filibuster will be another negative mark against the Republican party as Americans believe more and more that the party is unable to govern. This will lead many in the party to push him to allow her nomination to go forward. If the establishment comes out strongly in favor of allowing her to proceed, Paul will have a tough decision to make.

One argument against a filibuster is that Janet Yellen would be the first ever women chairman of the Fed and filibustering her would look terrible. It’s conventional wisdom that the Republican Party has a gender problem. Women don’t like the GOP. If the party cannot find a way to reverse that description, it will have a hard time taking back the presidency in 2016. That means it will have to nominate a candidate who has a strong track record on gender issues, or at least not a bad one. By filibuster Yellen, Paul reduces his chances of being that person. Not just will Yellen be the first woman to head the Fed, she is unquestionably qualified, has a huge amount of experience and has a terrific track record. Paul does not doubt any of that, of course. He simply wants a vote on his bill. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the optics of his actions and those optics aren’t good. He’ll be filibustering the most-qualified Fed Chair nominee in recent history, who also happens to be the first woman nominee.

Except that doesn’t matter. Few issues affect a general election. A filibuster against a Fed nominee three years earlier will almost certainly be meaningless. Nearly half the country doesn’t know who Yellen is. That number will certainly rise, but most people vastly underrate rate the importance of the Federal Reserve. They don’t care who runs the place.

On the other hand, a filibuster offers Paul a chance to keep pace in the race for Tea Party support. The Tea Party is having a collective orgy over Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tx.) filibuster* and government shutdown. Paul smartly avoided that fight and thus hasn’t infuriated the establishment, but it did allow Cruz to seize control of the right wing. Paul needs to strike back and this offers him a rare opportunity where the issue before the Senate relates directly to a topic he’s passionate about. He’s doesn’t get many chances where he can draw national attention to audit the Fed. Like drone strikes, this is an issue where Paul is the leader. It’s perfectly timed for him to demonstrate to the Tea Party that he is equally as defiant as Cruz is and will fight tooth-and-nail against the Obama administration.

Cruz earned Tea Party support for his government shutdown antics, but lost the establishment. Rand Paul still has that support, but he has to compete with Cruz in the primary. If he can earn an equal support from the Tea Party as Cruz does, it will set him up to be the senate leader for the Republican nomination. But if the establishment becomes enraged at Paul for filibustering Yellen, it will put him in the same position as Cruz and be a boon for the Republican governors eying the presidency. Paul has a tough decision to make.

*I know it was technically not a filibuster. Whatever.

“Go Out There and Win an Election”

Those were the words President Obama directed towards the Republican Party today as he further emphasized that this was the end of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. If the Republican Party doesn’t like the president or his policies, it should take its message to the American people and win elections. It’s a simple argument and it also applies to moderate Republicans. If they want to take back their party, win elections. Defeat Tea Party candidates in primaries.

Liberals are hopeful that this complete and utter defeat of the Republican Party in the debt-ceiling battle will lead to a change of GOP strategy. The theory goes that the Tea Party will see that its extreme tactics don’t work and will look for more practical methods to fight the president. This is highly unlikely to happen.

Boehner did an excellent job keeping his members unified, but grassroots organizations around the country have had about enough. Molly Ball has a great story today about how many conservative activists are ready to leave the GOP and want to primary every Republican who voted for the bill. Their belief is that Republican tactics didn’t fail, their leadership did. For the moment, there’s a gap between the opinions of these activists and the Tea Party members in Congress. These congressmen had nothing, but positive things to say about the speaker yesterday while Eric Erickson, Rush Limbaugh and other notable conservatives weren’t so kind. That gap will disappear soon enough as those congressmen look to stay on the good side of Erickson and Co.

Many reform conservatives were appalled with the Tea Party’s tactics. Ross Douthat hopes this was a learning exercise for the party so that it won’t “pull this kind of stunt again.” David Frum is ready for the Tea Party to exit altogether. He’s not alone in that opinion.

But Boehner and Republican leaders know that as much as they want to do that, they can’t. Whether they like it or not, the Republican Party needs the Tea Party as much as they need the moderates. They are listening to the Tea Party and not the moderates, because the Tea Party has no problem declaring war on the establishment and jumping ship. That may be electoral suicide, but the right wing doesn’t fear those consequences. The moderates do. It’s the same reason the hard-liners didn’t fear the political consequences of a futile government shutdown or the economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. It’s a game of chicken between the moderates and radicals. Whoever is willing to ditch the party and cause electoral defeat for both has control. Right now, that’s the Tea Party.

That’s why Boehner can’t simply cast aside his conservative members. It’s why he must do everything in his power to keep them happy and listen to them.

The way moderates take back the party is not through a civil war, but by defeating them in elections. As these extreme tactics fail, the moderate Republicans will earn more support from the marginal Tea Party voter. Slowly, they will win back their trust. This won’t be an overnight change. It will take at least the 2014 election cycle, probably longer and there’s nothing either party can do to speed it along. It’s deeply frustrating for Democrats to look across the aisle and see a party held captive by a small fraction of extreme members. For Republicans, it’s even more frustrating to be the ones held captive by those members. But casting aside those members in a nasty civil war will be political suicide for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The best thing moderate Republicans can do is win elections.