The Other Defunder

by Eliana Johnson
Mike Lee’s quiet conservative leadership

Mike Lee looked every bit the sidekick to Ted Cruz during the Texas senator’s epic 21-hour filibuster last week — and, indeed, throughout the effort to strip funding from the president’s health-care bill. At 3:37 p.m. on Wednesday, an hour into Cruz’s marathon diatribe against Obamacare, Lee appeared on the Senate floor to lend a show of support to his colleague. “Will the gentleman yield for a question?” he asked, before delivering his own brief remarks in opposition to the law and retreating again to the wings.

Though Cruz has taken center stage throughout the defunding drama, it is the Utah senator who has for months been the quiet mastermind of the Republican effort to defund Obamacare. While Cruz railed on the Senate floor, Lee stayed in his Senate office overnight, the only senator besides Cruz to do so. When the weary Texan exited the Senate chamber on Thursday, it was Lee who carried their message onto Fox News and CNN.

Mike Lee is not trying to position himself in front of a camera. Unlike his high-profile tea-party colleagues Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, Lee has no presidential ambitions. He looks unremarkable and talks unremarkably, eschewing the grandiose flourishes and flamboyant displays of his ideological allies and seeming content to let them take center stage. As a popular senator from Utah, a Republican state in little danger of turning purple, Lee is looking to hold down the Senate GOP’s right flank for the long term. “I’d like to see us moving more in a direction of being highly skeptical of any effort to expand the federal government’s role, any effort to expand the cost of government, any effort to increase taxes,” he told me last month in an interview in his Senate office. “I’d like to see us continue to move in a direction that’s more in favor of constitutionally limited government — perhaps more important, more devoted to federalism, regardless of what the courts will let us get away with.” One of his aides puts it more bluntly: “The minority of the minority” of the Senate GOP, he says, referring to the ascendant Tea Party Caucus, “is going to run things until our leadership gets some backbone.”

The wheels of the defunding effort began to turn shortly after the Obama administration announced, on July 2, that it would delay the law’s employer mandate. “The law as it was passed in 2010 is no longer the law as it sits on the books today,” Lee tells me. I ask if he’d hold the same position if the law had remained unchanged. “I don’t think that my position would necessarily be different,” he acknowledges — Lee was elected in 2010 in a wave of backlash against the law and considers uncompromising opposition to it a duty to his constituents — but the delay lent credibility to a cause he would have championed regardless. “The fact that the president himself has said, ‘This law is not ready to be implemented as written,’ gives us a lot more momentum and allows us to make a very serious case for defunding,” he says.

That is the case Lee made in early July, when he put in personal calls to influential talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham to ask for their support. His pitch to the would-be emissaries, according to a Lee aide, was, “This is our last, best chance to do something to protect the country from Obamacare before it is fully implemented.” He often asks, rhetorically, when an entitlement program has been rolled back after its implementation. Since then, the talk-radio giants have spread the gospel, though their vocal support has failed to elicit the broad-based popular uprising that Cruz and Lee had hoped for.

Shortly thereafter, on July 9, Lee threw down the gauntlet for his Senate colleagues in an interview with the Washington Examiner, telling the paper: “Our current [continuing resolution] expires at the end of September, and so every Republican is going to have a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’re okay with Obamacare — whether or not they’re willing to fund it. . . . Any Republican who agrees to fund Obamacare this time around is going to have a hard time explaining that to voters.”

In order to launch a sustained campaign for defunding the law, the Utah senator first had to convince the House Republican leadership to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that stripped funds from Obamacare. The week of July 22, he set out to persuade influential House members that a push to defund the entire law — rather than to delay the individual mandate — was the best strategy to pursue. Flanked by Cruz, Lee made the case to a small group of House Republicans. “We wanted the House to throw something over the wall that we could fight with,” says a Senate GOP aide.

With two months to go before a government shutdown, the timing was intended to prevent Republicans from shouldering the blame for a shutdown and to put the burden on Senate majority leader Harry Reid to pass a House CR. The Senate aide argues that if the House had taken this course, then “the crux of the message would have been ‘Harry Reid needs to pass the House CR’ — the conversation wouldn’t have been about a government shutdown.” Instead, House Republicans rebuffed Lee and his allies, and, an aide laments, “We spent two months fighting Republicans instead of Democrats.” Lee and Cruz on Friday went around House leadership, urging members to oppose John Boehner’s plan, which is to fight the administration over the debt limit rather than go to war over the CR. Now, a shutdown is imminent.

A House GOP aide says that, in the days after the announcement of the employer-mandate delay, Cruz and Lee filled a strategic vacuum for Republicans who were looking for a way to continue the fight against Obamacare. “It’s fair to be critical of our House guys” for their failure to offer a concrete alternative to defunding, the aide concedes, but critics of the Lee strategy charge that he has elevated defunding from a tactic into a principle. (Cruz has labeled his Republican opponents as members of the “surrender caucus,” but many of the House conservatives who have worked tirelessly to oppose Obamacare undoubtedly resent the accusations of squishiness.) Backed into a corner by Cruz and Lee, Boehner proposed and the House on Saturday passed a CR that delays the law’s implementation for a year and repeals the broadly opposed medical-device tax.  

In late July, put off by influential members of the House GOP, Lee pressed Senate Republicans to sign a letter announcing their opposition to further funding for Obamacare. On July 25, a dozen Republicans including Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley delivered a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid that cast the issue as one both of “fiscal prudence” and “fundamental fairness.” “If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it,” they wrote.

Many have speculated that the defunding battle was Cruz and Lee’s attempt to hog the national spotlight. The Wall Street Journal editorial board expressed skepticism, suggesting that the strategy was mostly about “fund-raising lists or getting face time on cable TV.” Others have been even less kind.

In his three years in office, however, Lee has pressed the Republican party to hold the line on what he sees as conservatives’ first principles, and, unlike Cruz, he has done so without alienating the more liberal members of the Republican conference — or even the mainstream media. “I sort of want to separate Ted Cruz and Mike Lee,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said during a discussion of the defunding effort earlier this month. “Mike Lee is an intellectually honest conservative.” While acknowledging that Cruz is “the face of this movement,” Todd informed viewers that Mike Lee is the “intellectual force” behind it.

Lee has burnished that reputation by offering a positive vision for conservatism and creative policy proposals. In April, he delivered a lecture at the Heritage Foundation titled “What Conservatives Are For.” “The Left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things, and conservatives are against things,” he said. “We say we are for lower taxes, or less regulation, or spending restraint. But those are just policies we advocate. They’re not what we’re really for. What we’re really for are the good things those policies will yield to the American people.” The failure to make that case, in Lee’s view, cost Republicans the 2012 presidential election, and he is urging his fellow Republicans to embrace a “compassionate conservatism” different from that advocated by George W. Bush. Its focus is on the conservative vision of community and the role of civic institutions in aiding the needy. “Those robust institutions of civil society represent the best, the most important piece of any civilization’s ability to deal with the vulnerable,” he tells me. “Government can’t create those institutions, but it can weaken them. If it weakens them too much it can destroy them, and once they’re gone, it can’t just push the restart button and have them spring back into action.”

Just two weeks ago, in mid September, Lee introduced a tax-reform plan that would simplify the tax code and slash taxes for those with children. Conservative intellectuals have long agitated for a proposal like this. Its centerpiece is a large expansion of the child tax credit — to $2,500 per child under the age of 16 — and it would mostly benefit married middle-class taxpayers at the expense of single, childless, higher-income earners. “For a political party too often seen as out of touch, aligned with the rich, indifferent to the less fortunate, and uninterested in solving the problems of working families, Republicans could not ask for a more worthy cause around which to build a new conservative reform agenda,” he said when he set forth the proposal at the American Enterprise Institute.

Lee is in Washington today in large part thanks to former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, whom he calls a “great friend.” He is, in many ways, a gentler and more politic version of DeMint. During his two terms in the Senate, DeMint made it his singular mission to push the Republican party rightward and launch a new generation of lawmakers to political prominence. It was DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund that threw support behind candidates such as Lee, Paul, Rubio, and Cruz, newcomers who were either challenging incumbent Republicans or looking to knock off establishment favorites in primary battles. DeMint poured money into their campaigns and mobilized the grassroots on their behalf. 

“It is a new and shocking development to have a member of our conference opposing incumbent Republicans,” Maine senator Susan Collins told the New York Times in 2010, the same year Lee picked off three-term GOP senator Robert Bennett. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott didn’t have anything kinder to say: “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” he told the Washington Post. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them out.”

Lee and his allies have clearly benefited from DeMint’s support, and they’ve also learned some tactical lessons from his tenure. At a rally on Tax Day in 2000, DeMint hurled all 17,000 pages of the tax code from a hot-air balloon toward a booing crowd below. That same flair for drama was on display in last week’s filibuster, as is the frequent use of arcane Senate rules to frustrate Democrats and, oftentimes, GOP leadership. Rand Paul’s filibuster earlier this year over the administration’s drone policy took cues from the same playbook. Another DeMint tactic adopted by the current crop of rabble-rousers is the willingness to bypass the Republican conference: If persuasion is not producing results in the Senate, rally the GOP base directly through talk radio and cable television.

Rhetorically, Lee casts himself as an outsider. “The Washington establishment is, as the name suggests, about Washington,” he says. “And once you get outside of our nation’s capital, the laws of gravity don’t work quite the same way.” But for all of his barbs at Washington elites, he is more connected to them than is perhaps any other lawmaker now in office. Three of his cousins have been elected senator, and two of them — Mark Udall (D., Colo.) and Tom Udall (D., N.M.) — are still serving. His Mormon “home teacher,” the figure charged with instilling in him as a boy the core principles of the faith, was Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Lee’s father, Rex, served as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Byron White and as solicitor general during Ronald Reagan’s first term; Lee’s brother, Tom, sits on the Utah Supreme Court. Lee received his undergraduate and law degrees from Brigham Young University, where his father had served as president, before he went on to clerk for Samuel Alito on both the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Rather than labeling them as outsiders, it’s more accurate to say that Lee and his allies have created an alternative establishment and shifted the power of the Republican party in its direction. The first sign of their influence came in what Lee considers his greatest victory: the elimination of earmarks. With an earmark moratorium up for a vote in a closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican conference, Lee, who had been elected just days prior, made a simple request: “I wrote a note to the conference chair asking that we take a roll-call vote instead of a voice vote,” he recalls, on the principle that “we ought to identify ourselves on one side of the issue or the other.” “What we had expected to be a really close vote whose outcome we did not yet know became something much less than a close vote and overwhelmingly in our favor, and we were thrilled by that,” he says.

Another key victory, he says, came in the defeat of the gun-control legislation proposed by the Obama administration and Senate Democrats in the wake of last year’s massacre in Newtown, Conn.: “It was a big win, and one that nobody thought we could get.” In response to the president’s emotional invocation of the victims and their families, Lee rolled out the “Protect 2A” initiative: He solicited testimony, some of which he read on the Senate floor, from those whose lives had been saved by firearms. His intention was to refocus the gun-control debate, which had been mired in technical details, on the purpose and meaning of the Second Amendment. His website, overwhelmed with submissions, crashed twice. “We never lose sight of the message that is compelling to our audience,” an aide says.

In what now seems to have become a matter of course, when Lee and several of his colleagues announced they would filibuster any legislation that curtailed Second Amendment rights, they faced opposition not just from Democrats but also from fellow Republicans. At the time, the Wall Street Journal dubbed it “the GOP’s gun-control misfire,” writing, “In an instant, these GOP wizards have taken the onus off Senate Democrats and made Republicans the media’s gun-control focus.” Whether Lee and his colleagues swayed any votes is an open question, but Lee takes credit for defeating the gun-control proposals, arguing that he and his colleagues successfully reshaped the issue despite the president’s attempts to distort the facts. “We started early, we kept to a very simple and absolutely true message, and it worked,” he says.

I ask Lee what success looks like for him, what outcome would convince him he’s done good work. He takes a long pause. “Success, particularly in this setting, has to be viewed more as a direction than a destination,” he responds. He’d like to push the GOP in a direction that is “more oriented toward the rights of the individual, more conscious of the fact that when the federal government expands its sphere of influence, it does so at the expense of individual liberty and prosperity.” He acknowledges that this is “a really vague, broad answer.” But when I inquire as to whether he thinks he’s succeeded in pushing the caucus in a better direction, he is unequivocal: “Yes.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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