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Mike Lee Makes It Interesting

There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

The Utah senator combines the grassroots bona fides of other Tea Partiers with an energetic reform agenda–the latter being arguably more significant as the right seeks to find its way out of the wilderness. Ross Douthat, long a proponent of reform conservatism, notes that high-profile support for reform, such as that of Paul Ryan, has mostly gone nowhere, and adds:

Which is why the most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.

The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.

The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.

The juxtaposition is noteworthy, because Rubio gave last year’s “official” GOP SOTU response despite rising to stardom as a Tea Party favorite, while Lee will give this year’s Tea Party response despite falling out of favor with some libertarians by advocating a community-minded conservatism with a focus on civil society.

Lee, then, has a foot in each camp. His hope is probably that he can blend the borders and blur the distinctions. What he’s more likely to find is that American conservatism was and remains a coalitional enterprise, and that he may not be granted the dual citizenship–Tea Partier and Establishmentarian–he seeks but rather be forced to choose.

That choice can be ignored at the moment because he is not considered an immediate prospective presidential candidate, which frees him up to shun either label and instead embrace reform. He also may combine elements of each in his response to the response to the SOTU. That means, strangely enough, that a vehicle established specifically for the purpose of elevating dissent within the ranks could be utilized to promote unity and consensus. That’s classic opposition-party behavior, of course, but Lee is clearly expecting–and planning for–a return to conservative governance.


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