There’s something inherently encouraging about prominent Republican officials urging their intra-party brethren to get their act together. Given the broader significance of GOP radicalization and the transition of Republicans into “post-policy” status, everyone benefits when leading voices within the party urge the GOP to do better.
The problem comes in the execution.
After the Republicans’ setbacks in the 2012 elections, for example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) urged the GOP to stop being the “stupid party.” But it wasn’t long before the governor was embracing the very “dumbed-down conservatism” he had warned against.
Similarly, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is trying to position himself as a reform-minded Republican, delivering a “lofty, agenda-setting speech” at the Heritage Foundation this week, urging the GOP to get wonky.
“If our generation of conservatives wants to enjoy our own defining triumph, our own 1980 – we are going to have to deserve it,” the Utah senator said. “That means sharpening more pencils than knives. The kind of work it will require is neither glamorous nor fun, and sometimes it isn’t even noticed. But it is necessary.”He added, “To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight. We have to win a debate. And to do that, we need more than just guts. We need an agenda.”
It is, to be sure, a nice sentiment, and Lee’s speech was celebrated by the likes of Douthat, Lowry, and Salam, among others. For Republicans eager to see their party develop some intellectual heft again, it’s easy to understand why Lee’s call would resonate.
But there are two glaring problems. The first is that Lee’s vision for a Republican Party with a substantive policy agenda is lacking in … a substantive policy agenda. His remarks at Heritage, for example, called for an 80% cut in the gas tax over the next five years. Why? Because Lee thinks that sounds nice. What about the importance of that revenue in domestic infrastructure? The senator seems to think cash-strapped states will pick up the slack.
It’s not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence in the vision’s intellectual weightiness.
The second is that Mike Lee is an awful choice for reforming the Republican Party’s approach to policy. As Marc Tracy explained yesterday, this is the same Utah senator who was one of the driving forces behind the GOP government-shutdown strategy, and who reiterated his belief that congressional Republicans should keep voting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, over and over again, even though nothing will come of it. His speech singled out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), of all people, for praise.
Ed Kilgore added, “Lee’s speech did not exactly blow anybody’s socks off in terms of the boldness or originality of his policy ideas…. Compare it to the worst of Bill Clinton’s many agenda-setting speeches, and it would be considered pedantic if not pathetic.”
I’m delighted Republicans are beginning to look for intellectual heroes to drag the party out of its fever swamp, but at the risk of being presumptuous, I have some advice for my friends in the GOP: keep looking.