Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mike Lee

The State of the Tea Party 2014

Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

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Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

Like all such movements the transition from the stump to the halls of government power has been rough. Effecting change in a democracy is more than a matter of demonstrations or even getting out the vote. It requires persuasion and a commitment to the sort of nose-to-the-grindstone political work that is antithetical to the spirit of rebellion Santelli and those who followed him have sought to harness.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah summed up the challenge for the Tea Party when he said this week, “The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and discarding heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate. A civil debate, not a civil war.” He’s right about that and those who see only a war between the party establishment and the activists need to remember that the Tea Party has already won the ideological war within the Republican Party.

Though coverage of the Tea Party mostly focuses on the fights between Senator Ted Cruz and some of his GOP colleagues, what is often forgotten is that there is no debate within the party about the principles that the Tea Party movement embodies. All endorse the Tea Party view about the need to fight back against President Obama’s efforts to increase the power of government. Anger against ObamaCare and a government that is too big to fail and too powerful to be held accountable for its out-of-control spending is universal in the GOP. The only differences are about tactics, not the ideas that catapulted the movement into the public square after the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act were past by a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010.

The Tea Party has stumbled at times when it allowed the emotions of the debate to overwhelm good sense and dictate destructive tactics like the government shutdown to undermine their cause. It has sometimes pursued party purity over the less exciting business of building governing coalitions. But what its liberal critics forget is that while Ted Cruz and government shutdown advocates are not trusted by most Americans, the same public anger that gave birth to the Tea Party is even greater today than it was five years ago. The challenge for Republicans is to remember that the Tea Party is not just a bunch of activists who go to conventions but, in fact, a broad cross-section of Americans who share their basic beliefs about the role of government. That mass movement of voters took liberal pundits by surprise in 2010 when the Tea Party that they derided as a band of racist cranks turned out in numbers sufficient to oust a Democratic Congress.

The Tea Party is not tied to specific organizations bearing the name but to an idea of reform. To the extent that Republicans continue to embody that concept while also showing themselves worthy of the people’s trust, they will win. That’s why, for all of its ups and downs in recent years, Democrats who prefer to believe the myth that the Tea Party is a top-down concept created by corporate funders may discover they are as wrong about it today as they were when it first started. 

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The Tea Party’s Gift to American Politics

On Fox News Sunday Senator Mike Lee debated Representative Xavier Becerra over the president’s repeated lawless acts related to the Affordable Care Act. (Mr. Obama has unilaterally changed or delayed the ACA 24 times without seeking the approval of Congress.)

It was a rout, with Senator Lee blowing apart the argument offered up by Representative Becerra. The Democrat from California was misleading in his claims. He ducked the questions asked by host Chris Wallace and kept reverting to pabulum and talking points.

Senator Lee, on the other hand, was terrific. His answers were crisp, direct, and articulate. He was principled without coming across as dyspeptic. He also helped educate both Mr. Becerra and the public by (to take one example) making the point that not all executive orders are created equal, thereby deftly answering the charge that because Ronald Reagan used executive orders more often than Mr. Obama, the latter has violated the constitutional less often than the former.

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On Fox News Sunday Senator Mike Lee debated Representative Xavier Becerra over the president’s repeated lawless acts related to the Affordable Care Act. (Mr. Obama has unilaterally changed or delayed the ACA 24 times without seeking the approval of Congress.)

It was a rout, with Senator Lee blowing apart the argument offered up by Representative Becerra. The Democrat from California was misleading in his claims. He ducked the questions asked by host Chris Wallace and kept reverting to pabulum and talking points.

Senator Lee, on the other hand, was terrific. His answers were crisp, direct, and articulate. He was principled without coming across as dyspeptic. He also helped educate both Mr. Becerra and the public by (to take one example) making the point that not all executive orders are created equal, thereby deftly answering the charge that because Ronald Reagan used executive orders more often than Mr. Obama, the latter has violated the constitutional less often than the former.

This is probably as good a time as any, then, to praise Senator Lee, who has become one of the most impressive lawmakers in the land. I had my disagreement with him on the wisdom of the government shutdown. (I think the record shows that this gambit was foolish and counterproductive.) But overall, Senator Lee has been outstanding. He’s delivered some very thoughtful speeches. Among other things, he said this:

Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. Outrage, resentment, and intolerance are gargoyles of the Left. For us, optimism is not just a message — it’s a principle. American conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude, and cooperation, and trust, and above all hope.

It is also about inclusion. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics. This, too, is part of the challenge before us.

Moreover, Senator Lee is at the forefront of advocating a conservative reform agenda on issues ranging from poverty and opportunity to criminal justice and higher-education reforms to changes in transportation policies and tax reforms aimed at helping families with children.

Senator Lee, in both his tone/bearing and the substance of his ideas, is exactly the kind of Republican the GOP and the conservative movement need to be their public face and voice: reasonable and reassuring, a person interested in ideas and governing, a man of clear and right convictions.

Mike Lee is among the greatest gifts the Tea Party has given to American politics.

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Conservative Education Reformers Go Beyond School Choice

School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

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School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

At issue are federal student loans, which can only be used to pay for education at federally accredited institutions. Lee argued that this policy makes the federal government a gatekeeper to higher education — and rather than keeping out bad actors, he said, it just protects institutions from competition. And as the government has closed and then subsidized this market, its product (the ubiquitous Bachelor’s degree) has become more expensive and less valuable.

So Lee’s proposed fix would let states set up their own accreditation regimes that would run parallel to the federal government’s.

“College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep their regional accreditor,” he said. “And I mean it, I’m absolutely sincere.”

Lee said the legislation could let states open accreditation for apprenticeships, professional certifications, and competency tests, among other alternative higher-ed modes. Apple and Google, for instance, could work to make accredited computer courses.

In a speech Monday, Rubio appeared receptive to Lee’s proposal, and had a few of his own:

Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also pushed for the passage of the “Know Before You Go Act,” which would provide students with data about potential earning by different fields. But such a proposal would require reversing the ban on a national student unit record system.

“It’s important for students and families to have access to the information they need to make a smart choice,” says Ethan Senack, a higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Sens. Rubio and [Ron] Wyden undertook an important effort … trying to balance the need for transparency and information with institutional burden and privacy concerns. I think it’s certainly an important step in the discussion, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

One of two suggestions Rubio made to tackle the growing mountain of student loan debt is to make income-based repayment the default option for all borrowers. Recent data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows just slightly more than 10 percent of federal loan borrowers are enrolled in some type of income-driven repayment plan.

Income-based repayment plans have their drawbacks, such as the fact that they force the federal government to bear more of the risk and don’t necessarily control costs–a recipe for trouble. But these are essential conversations to be having for the simple reason that, as the NPR story makes clear, you can’t really opt-out of this expensive system. (There are exceptions, such as trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts degree.)

“The result is a growing opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots, those who have advanced education and those who do not,” Rubio said in his Monday speech. Rubio’s language here is correct if he means that those who have an advanced education have achieved their degree. As Andrew Kelly pointed out this afternoon, there is a vast difference between going to college and completing college, and the gap in earning potential between those with who started college but didn’t finish school and those who skipped it entirely has narrowed.

Both NPR and Kelly were discussing a new Pew report on the issue. For its story, NPR did a round of interviews and one student credited past data on income disparity with his decision to go to college, though his first instinct was not to: “In this generation you have to go to college. Like, it isn’t even optional.” That’s becoming more and more the case, and it’s a problem. And it makes the government’s gatekeeper role in higher education all the more troubling just as it makes reformers’ attempts to fix the system all the more important.

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Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

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It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.

The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.

As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one  another to pieces.

The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.

Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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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.

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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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Poverty, Social Mobility, and the Party of Lincoln

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

As for politics: This kind of effort can only help the Republican Party, which has been too disengaged and morally indifferent to the problems facing the poor for too long. It has not offered a compelling agenda that addresses the economic and structural problems that face (especially) those living in the shadows of society. Whether or not to support or oppose Senator Rubio’s proposals should hinge on the substantive merits. But of course you can’t take the politics out of politics, and so as a purely political matter, focusing on the plight of the poor would certainly make middle-class voters, and especially middle-class women, more amenable to the GOP.

I’ve written before that social mobility is the central moral promise of American economic life; the hallmark of our system is the potential for advancement and greater prosperity rooted in merit and hard work rather than in the circumstances of one’s birth. This was the key insight of Lincoln, who noted that “the progress by which the poor, honest, industrious and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account and hire somebody else … is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”

It’s time that the Party of Lincoln more fully embrace the philosophy of Lincoln. That is, I think, what Marco Rubio (and congressional Republicans, like Representatives Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee) are doing. More Republicans should follow their lead. 

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No, Mike Lee Is Not a Collectivist

A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

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A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

First, let’s be clear about one thing.  The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For more than two hundred years, the United States – through trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually remember when their own families were poor.

Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.

To that, Brook and Simpson have this to say:

Really? American colonists fought the most powerful nation on earth as a precursor to a mid-20th century welfare program? Would it be too much to expect a simple “you did build that” from a senator put in office by the Tea Party? Apparently so. …

Sen. Lee no doubt views himself as a champion of America’s founding principles. But how do his views really differ from President Obama’s? They both think America’s defining purpose is its ability to solve big social problems. They both think America’s wealth comes from some group — “community and cooperation” in the senator’s view and “one nation and one people” in the president’s. Their only dispute seems to be about how we should distribute it. Lee opposes government enforced charity and cooperation. But if you concede that wealth, success, and prosperity come from “community and cooperation” rather than individual initiative, why shouldn’t government force us to “give back”? The government would never stand by while some people stole property from others. If we really think groups produced the nation’s wealth, then it is groups that own that wealth and government should “redistribute” it. “We’re all in this together,” under Sen. Lee’s view, becomes just a conservative version of “you didn’t build that.”

This seems to me way off the mark. In fact, Brook and Simpson are appropriating the left’s rhetoric on Citizens United and related First Amendment cases, such as the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. Liberals dismiss the notion of corporate personhood with the claim that “corporations aren’t people.” But that’s not what the argument is about. The question is: when people assemble in a group in order to better project their voices above the din, do they retain their constitutional rights or not?

The conservative case, which is patently correct once you put the question into practice, is that yes: individuals retain their constitutional rights even when they gather. Indeed, Lee spells that out in his speech, when he says:

We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and information and opportunity. What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth – to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.

Lee here is pointing out a key difference between right and left: institutions of the right are made up of individuals who choose to organize a certain way. Institutions of the left are really rolled into one institution: government. And its participation is based on coercion. When the government spends money, it’s spending money it took by force of law from one person and giving it to another. The institutions of civil society do not strip citizens of their choice, of their individual liberty.

That voluntary gathering doesn’t make them collectivist. Brook and Simpson argue that this is another version of “you didn’t build that.” But that strikes me as exactly the opposite of the case. You still “built that,” even if the you is plural. Further, the institutions of civil society serve as key protectors of individual liberty. If there is nothing between the government and the people, there is less to prevent every facet of private life from becoming the government’s business. Mike Lee understands that there is strength in numbers, but that’s a far cry from coercive collective action.

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Is the Shutdown Caucus Happy Now?

Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

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Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

It still remains to be seen whether Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee will fall on their swords and try to delay or prevent the Senate bill re-opening the government from passing. It is also possible that Speaker Boehner may try one more last, likely futile, parliamentary trick to cook up a deal that will be marginally more favorable to conservative interests. But the odds are, by the end of the week, we’ll be talking about Congress having to clean up the rubble left behind by the brutal battle these two and their House Tea Party friends fomented.

It’s also likely that they will take no responsibility for this crushing defeat. If anything, we can expect that they will blame their failure to come up with a strategy that had a chance of success or even an endgame that would allow their party a dignified path of retreat, on more reasonable Republicans — wrongly called RINOs by some Tea Partiers — who looked on in horror as they goaded Boehner to take the GOP over the cliff. But let’s make it clear that what is happening now isn’t the fault of those who said all along that this wouldn’t work. It’s the responsibility of a faction that simply wasn’t thinking straight about the best way to advance their goals and wound up doing more damage to the conservative movement than the Democrats could have ever done without their help.

As bad as it looks now, having wasted the country’s time in this manner won’t mean the end of the Republican Party. Like any party that doesn’t control the White House, it will remain divided and prey to factional disputes. But it will survive to fight another day and, with luck, will still be in position to hold onto the House and maybe even challenge the Democrats for control of the Senate next year. Perhaps once the shutdown is over, the nation will turn its full attention to the debacle of the ObamaCare rollout, which is where it should have been all along.

But neither should we forget who were the architects of defeat this week. John Boehner may be the poor soul who will have to preside over the formal surrender to the Democrats who will rightly crow about how they stood up to the Tea Party and defended the president’s signature health care legislation. Cruz and Lee and all those House members who thought this was a good idea owe their party and the country a better explanation than the one we’re likely to hear. And if either ever seeks the leadership of the party in 2016, they should be called to account for what they’ve done.

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And the Shutdown Cometh

Visitors to this website know that I believe Republicans have badly mishandled the government shutdown. My view is that it was unwise from the get-go, since it set up goals that were unattainable–certainly the Lee-Cruz-led efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act, which was always a pipe dream, but also the effort to delay it a year (which was more reasonable but still not achievable). That meant that unless Republicans ran up the white flag in advance of a shutdown–which would have enraged many grassroots Republicans and Tea Party members and probably cost John Boehner his speakership–we were going to face a shutdown.

Why? Because Democrats were not only not inclined to negotiate; they actually welcomed a shutdown. And from their perspective, I understand why. The public is strongly opposed to a shutdown–and even before we experienced one, the public was more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats for it.

In addition, the party that controls the presidency has huge institutional advantages in confrontations such as this. The president has a much larger bully pulpit and the ability to enforce discipline in a way a House speaker simply cannot. And while President Obama is not terribly popular at the moment, he is (unfortunately from my perspective) far more popular than the Republican House. The fact that the GOP is the more anti-government party won’t help them in terms of the developing narrative of this story.

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Visitors to this website know that I believe Republicans have badly mishandled the government shutdown. My view is that it was unwise from the get-go, since it set up goals that were unattainable–certainly the Lee-Cruz-led efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act, which was always a pipe dream, but also the effort to delay it a year (which was more reasonable but still not achievable). That meant that unless Republicans ran up the white flag in advance of a shutdown–which would have enraged many grassroots Republicans and Tea Party members and probably cost John Boehner his speakership–we were going to face a shutdown.

Why? Because Democrats were not only not inclined to negotiate; they actually welcomed a shutdown. And from their perspective, I understand why. The public is strongly opposed to a shutdown–and even before we experienced one, the public was more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats for it.

In addition, the party that controls the presidency has huge institutional advantages in confrontations such as this. The president has a much larger bully pulpit and the ability to enforce discipline in a way a House speaker simply cannot. And while President Obama is not terribly popular at the moment, he is (unfortunately from my perspective) far more popular than the Republican House. The fact that the GOP is the more anti-government party won’t help them in terms of the developing narrative of this story.

Beyond all that, I tend to believe that Republicans hurt, not help, themselves with these kind of high-profile confrontations. Brinksmanship isn’t something that tends to redound to the benefit of the GOP Congress–especially one that is so obviously pointless (since the end goal, defunding/delaying the Affordable Care Act, was never achievable).

As a result of all this, there’s more attention on the Republican Party’s role in the shutdown than there is on the implementation of the pernicious Affordable Care Act.

My concern is that this gambit will inflict damage to conservatism, erase the gains the GOP has made in recent months (when it has begun polling better on most issues than Democrats), and at the same time help revive the Obama presidency. That’s not the hat trick the right wants.

Now I may be wrong. Politics is rarely linear, often unpredictable, and so perhaps Republicans will emerge from the shutdown in better shape and the president in a weaker condition. We’ll see. But even if I’m right, we should be clear about a few things. First, it is President Obama and the Democratic Congress that is adamantine in their position. They are the inflexible and unyielding ones. They are the dogmatists in this drama.

Moreover, the hate rhetoric Democrats are employing is stupidly excessive. The charges that Republicans are (choose your crime and/or pathology) arsonists, anarchists, terrorists, jihadists, extortionists, racists, hostage-takers, and so forth and so on are reckless and unwarranted, to say nothing of tiresome and stale. It’s the sign of an intellectually exhausted party. And of course it is antithetical to the central promise of the Obama campaign in 2008, which was to bind up the political wounds in America and put an end to partisan divisions and divisive rhetoric. 

Republicans are pursuing a legitimate (though I think unwise) strategy to try to unwind a law they believe is malignant. They may be right or they may be wrong in their substantive analysis of the Affordable Care Act (I believe they are correct)–but in either case they are using levers that are available to them. Nor are they unreasonable, especially when facing a president who is himself obdurate and obstinate.

Make no mistake about it; Barack Obama and his Democratic allies wanted this shutdown, and now they have it. I just hope I’m wrong and that it’s the president, and not the GOP and the conservative movement, that pays the higher price for this latest governing debacle. 

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Republican Threat to Shut Down the Government Is a Terrible Idea

There’s an increasingly contentious debate within the GOP over whether Republicans should oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for the Affordable Care Act. The basic argument of people like Senator Mike Lee is that in return for Republican support for funding government operations, Democrats will defund the ACA. If Democrats refuse, no money will be forthcoming. And as a result, the government will shut down–and Democrats will be blamed for having done so. After all, they chose funding ObamaCare over keeping the rest of the federal government running. QED. 

This approach is so obviously the correct one, some on the right insist that those Republicans who oppose it must never have been serious about repealing ObamaCare in the first place. Added Senator Ted Cruz, “What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They’re scared of being beaten up politically.” But not the gallant and intrepid senator from Texas.  

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There’s an increasingly contentious debate within the GOP over whether Republicans should oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for the Affordable Care Act. The basic argument of people like Senator Mike Lee is that in return for Republican support for funding government operations, Democrats will defund the ACA. If Democrats refuse, no money will be forthcoming. And as a result, the government will shut down–and Democrats will be blamed for having done so. After all, they chose funding ObamaCare over keeping the rest of the federal government running. QED. 

This approach is so obviously the correct one, some on the right insist that those Republicans who oppose it must never have been serious about repealing ObamaCare in the first place. Added Senator Ted Cruz, “What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They’re scared of being beaten up politically.” But not the gallant and intrepid senator from Texas.  

The assertion that Republicans don’t want to succeed and were never serious about repealing the Affordable Care Act is simply wrong. We all agree on the end; where there’s disagreement is on the means to the end. Critics of the Lee gambit believe it would fail–and in the process it would set back the conservative cause, may revive the Obama presidency, and damage Republicans in the 2014 election.

As for the reason some of us believe it would fail, let’s start with the most obvious points first: No one believes Barack Obama will under any circumstance sign legislation that would defund his signature achievement. Which means that a government shutdown would be in the cards. And that doesn’t bode well for the GOP, since any party in control of one branch of Congress will rarely win a showdown with a president of another party on a matter like this. There are intrinsic advantages the presidency has which Congress does not. (See the Gingrich-led House of Representative in the mid-1990s which, contrary to revisionist claims, never really recovered in the aftermath of its showdown with Bill Clinton.) Overcoming those advantages is possible, but doing so requires fighting on terrain that has been very carefully chosen. This terrain favors Mr. Obama.

For example, Jeffrey Anderson–one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent critics of the Affordable Care Act–calls attention to a new Kaiser Health Tracking poll that shows that Americans oppose ObamaCare by 5 points (40 to 35 percent) but also oppose defunding it by 27 points (58 to 31 percent). And that’s prior to a high-profile collision with the president. Anderson examines the findings of other surveys and writes “all of these polls suggest that an effort that is framed as defunding Obamacare is likely a political loser.” 

In a fight over defunding the Affordable Care Act, one can count on the press being highly one-sided in its coverage, with the instant narrative being that Republicans are anti-government, bordering on being nihilistic, obsessed with obstructionism, and responsible for the troops not getting paid. Republicans would try to chip away at it, but without much success. Bear in mind, too, that we’re in a nation that reelected Obama by a fairly comfortable margin, and he remains far more popular than Congress and the Republican Party. And Republicans would be entering a debate where the preexisting impressions–in this case, the GOP is highly critical of government and are not all that troubled by the prospect of a shutdown–works to their disadvantage.

Some on the right are understandably frustrated. They want to undo the damage of the Obama era, as do we all. But there is nothing conservative about acting as if we live in an alternate political universe, in a place where favorable new scenarios can be wished into existence. Nor is there anything conservative in insisting that Republicans get in a fight they are almost sure to lose–and that the loss itself will have damaging ramifications.

A prediction: If Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rand Paul had their way, a month or so afterward nearly everyone would look back at it as a mistake, and quite possibly as a disaster. Public support for their plan would never materialize, Republicans would be forced to retreat, and there would be recriminations all the way around, with those who advocated this idea coming up with excuses for why it failed (and was destined to fail). Fortunately, however, Lee & Co. won’t have their way. Cooler and wiser heads will prevail.   

Prudence is a higher political virtue than impatience and pugilistic impulses. Republicans would therefore be wise to act in ways that are measured, politically intelligent, realistic, and that avoid the traps set by its opponents. 

I’ve said before that Pickett’s Charge is a Civil War reference. There’s no reason for it to become a political blueprint for the GOP.

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