Can Mike Lee Save the Tea Party?
Or is he just a nicer version of Ted Cruz?
By JONATHAN RIEHL
January 27, 2014
In its short history, the Tea Party has offered its own response to the president’s State of the Union address with a colorful cast of characters: Rep. Michele Bachman’s (R-Minn.) deer-in-the-headlights production in 2011 became rich fodder for late night comedians; she was followed in 2012 by the inimitable pizza CEO Herman Cain and last year by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has since moved in a more mainstream direction as he gears up for a possible presidential run. In contrast, this year’s Tea Party representative, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)—a mild-mannered Mormon Eagle Scout whose father served in the Reagan administration—seems a sensible choice: The insurgent right appears to be developing some self-awareness that its message demands a better messenger.
That has become clear over the past several months. After more and more establishment Republicans criticized the Tea Party’s eagle-eyed anti-Obamacare agenda for holding the rest of the GOP hostage, the Republican insurgents then saw their strategy backfire in the government shutdown last fall, with the Tea Party’s unfavorability rating rising to 49 percent in October. The face of that insurgency and the march to a shutdown was the firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who, ever since riding into the upper body in the 2012 election, has bucked the leadership in both houses, memorably speaking for more than 21 hours on the Senate floor about the push to defund the Affordable Care Act.
Cruz’s bomb-throwing has met a palpable backlash in the press and among the Republican Party establishment—and has handicapped his chances as a viable national candidate. “It’s always the wacko birds on the right and the left that get the media megaphone,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously said last year, referring to Cruz, among others. “I think it’s important for Republican leaders around the country to speak out against him,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). I’d venture that Cruz was probably considered for the response speech Tuesday night, though he appears to have been relegated to finding free media on the Sunday shows.
Enter Mike Lee, the low-key Utahan whose rhetorical style and demeanor are notably more mannered—a nicer version of Ted Cruz, perhaps. On all of the most pressing issues in Congress—budgetary policy, taxation, foreign relations (read: Benghazi) and the overall role of government—Lee has stood shoulder to shoulder with Cruz and the Tea Party, denouncing Obamacare, resisting a debt-ceiling increase, calling for a restrained foreign policy and forcing the government shutdown. Rhetorically, however, Lee presents a study in contrast. He has not jumped for sound-bite attention, and his name recognition is low (not to mention that he comes from a state wholly without the obvious electoral-vote pull of Cruz’s Texas).
“There’s no question Lee has a genuine interest in ideas, in open debate and exchange,” said Eugene Meyer, president of the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, where Lee has been active since his days in law school.
Could this be the new face of the Tea Party? After earning a reputation for pomposity, maybe the Republican insurgency is taking a new tack. Lee’s speech on Tuesday could be the test of that new image.
Through media accounts, we have gotten to know Cruz’s immigrant background—his Cuban émigré father, an evangelical pastor who today parades in the headlines with outlandish statements about homosexuality and evolution that make GOP insiders cringe. Lee’s family is less known. His father was the founder of Brigham Young University’s Law School in the 1970s and served under President Ronald Reagan as a notoriously independent solicitor general who sometimes appeared to break with the administration’s party line. He was even once quoted as clarifying that his job was to be “the solicitor general, not the pamphleteer general.”
Lee, who spent half his childhood in Utah and half in McLean, Virginia, appeared to be on a more moderate track earlier in his career, working as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, as well as general counsel to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. But in his 2010 Senate race he, like Cruz, ousted a sitting conservative Republican whose standing was seen as unshakeable. Robert Bennett, who had represented Utah in the Senate since 1993, was a pillar of the conservative establishment with decades of experience—as well as someone known to be willing and capable of debating and engaging with unlike-minded colleagues and the press. To beat him in the primary, Lee tacked to the right, riding a wave of Tea Party momentum to unseat Bennett and irking establishment Republicans and Bennett supporters in the process.
But whereas Cruz, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, all too quickly became seen as a Tea Party demagogue, Lee still stands the chance to emerge as the Boy Scout, who in addition to starting fires from scratch must also know how to put them out. (Lee is, literally, an Eagle Scout.) Not that this guarantees anything. Mitt Romney was a gentleman as well, and as the new documentary Mitt shows, he actually had the same mild-mannered persona at the podium as he was when the news crews weren’t following him. Ironically, Romney’s “messaging” failures led to a GOP postmortem that put an emphasis on style over substance, criticizing his staid manner for failing to incite conservative passion.
Few Americans may actually watch Lee’s entire speech on Tuesday, which will be broadcast just after Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) delivers the official GOP State of the Union response. But the Tea Party faithful are likely to tune in, and that will drive activism from the moment Lee’s address ends until its sound bites show up in TV spots and fundraising letters. Rather than a hectoring Joe McCarthy-stand-in, viewers are likely to see an amiable Utahan, an average man who speaks with a heartfelt and moderate tone. Not so nervous as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who in last year’s GOP response grabbed awkwardly for that off camera water bottle in an image met with much joking by the Twittersphere, or the clearly not-ready-for-primetime Bachmann.
But will Lee’s style do anything to rebrand the Tea Party image? He isn’t talked about as having 2016 ambitions, and there’s no guarantee he will succeed in persuading a broader audience, especially if he is kept under the influence of his colleague Cruz. But the choice to have Lee serve as messenger itself sends a message—and that alone is important. As William F. Buckley once wrote, “Truth alone does not necessarily vanquish.” Those who reject the Tea Party message see its “truth” as necessarily a delusion, while for those who embrace the Tea Party, the messenger is of little import. For the vast majority of the rest of us, who stand somewhere in the middle, it is Buckley’s follow-up line that matters: “Truth can never win unless it is promulgated.” Lee’s predecessors have failed in promulgation. And they have essentially been vanquished as a result.
“Promulgation,” as Buckley had it, requires style and substance—both matter. And while Cruz and Lee may be alike in substance, the contrast between their styles could not be starker. So which does the Tea Party want to be—Cruz or Lee—and which is it better off being? If Lee’s speech Tuesday night begins to budge the Tea Party’s renegade reputation in a different direction, the Republican far right will have him to thank. As some inside the GOP have argued to me, the Tea Party message is untenable politically, demographically and electorally—regardless of the messenger. But many said the same exact things about Ronald Reagan in the 1970s. And how did that turn out?