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How a Crazy Senator Became a Sudden Darling of the Respectable Right

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Fanfare! Trumpets! There has been a Big Important Speech on the Future of Conservatism. Let’s take it Really Seriously. Sen. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, went to the Heritage Foundation Tuesday and spoke. Milton Friedman and Irving Kristol were namechecked! Russell Kirk was quoted! The gas tax was proposed to be slashed 80 percent! Oh wait, I am supposed to still be mentioning the Serious parts.

I shouldn’t make fun, maybe. There are serious parts. Lee’s concern for “immobility among the poor,” the middle-class squeeze, and “cronyist privilege at the top,” and his desire to fashion a conservative response to them, is the right note for a Republican senator to strike. Amen to calls for “a new conservatism of the working and middle class,” because either we will get one or the failed attempt to give us one will prove it to be a contradiction in terms. Conservative intellectuals of a reformist bent welcomed the speech—Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam (they co-wrote a book on these themes), Rich Lowry, Jennifer Rubin. BuzzFeed political editor McKay Coppins called it a “lofty, agenda-setting speech” for its ringing declaration, “frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative” and for its forceful denunciation of the House Republicans’ sociopathic shutdown tactic, which futilely damaged the U.S. economy and very nearly caused the federal government to default—a narrowly evaded catastrophe.

Except, of course, Lee didn’t do that last thing. Lee was pro-shutdown! Other than Ted Cruz, he was probably the House Republicans’ most important ally in the Senate. And he did not denounce—or, in his case, repudiate—the shutdown tactics. So now you see why I couldn’t help but make fun.

I suppose if we set the bar low enough that insects can do the limbo with it, you could read his speech as endorsing a less insane way forward. But here is what happened Tuesday: One of Washington’s most staunchly pro-shutdown politicians, appearing at maybe Washington’s most important pro-shutdown organization, pointedly refused to condemn the shutdown or suggest he would not support a future shutdown if it meant trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

On the contrary, Lee said, “I am proud of my friend Ted Cruz and the dozens of others—including Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans—who fought Obamacare, continue to fight it, and will not stop fighting it.” At the outset, he narrated, “It began with our effort to stop Obamacare—a goal that all Republicans share even if we have not always agreed about just how to pursue it.” Absent a declaration that he no longer agrees with how he pursued it, one is forced to conclude that he feels the same way now. Douthat, Salam, and Lowry do not mention this.

There is a broader point here. If I ever found the bulk of my political views articulated by somebody whose most prominent action ever—undertaken in the past month and unrepudiated—was as grotesquely irresponsible as what Cruz, Lee, and the House Republicans put us through, it would cause me to question my views. I would reflect upon the fact that Lee and I share these beliefs, and that he logically extends them toward something totally self-destructive and crazy. I would have to conclude either that he is correct to do this, and therefore that my views must be wrong and that I must change them, or that he is not worth listening to, because he takes perfectly good ideas and warps them into something powerfully hazardous. There is apparently no such reckoning among the right’s respectable intellectuals—most of whom did oppose the shutdown itself, and not only for pragmatic reasons.

But in the meantime, let’s stick to the matter at hand. Can’t all reasonable people agree to ignore Mike Lee completely until he says he was wrong about the shutdown? Should this be a controversial suggestion? Given the gravity of the threat of a future shutdown, isn’t that the only responsible response?

Salam highlights several promising policy sketches that Lee offered; and truly, it is hard not to appreciate a Republican concerned with work-life balance issues. But Salam and the others misrepresent Lee—who, Salam notes, holds a relatively safe seat, and so presumably may speak his mind. Giving parents greater flexibility isn’t Lee’s foremost priority. According to Lee, “The first and most important policy goal Republicans must adopt to improve the lives of middle-class families is, and will remain, the full repeal of Obamacare.” How? Again, we have no choice but to presume that Lee believes that a legitimate tactic for repealing Obamacare is, and will remain, shutting down the government and threatening its default. How about we hear Lee out, and maybe even talk to him, sometime after he puts his gun away.

Correction: An earlier version misquoted McKay Coppins. The quote should have read, "lofty, agenda-setting speech," not, "lofty, high-minded speech."