The Senate’s Mr. Tea
Mike Lee brings grassroots conservatism to Washington.
In February 2009, Mike Lee was complaining to a friend, Utah conservative activist Monte Bateman, about the discouraging political scene. Republicans had just spent much of the past eight years ratcheting up government spending and swelling the deficit. Now Barack Obama and the Democrats were getting ready to add fuel to the fire, starting with a massive stimulus package.
Lee proposed what would have seemed to most people a fairly quirky solution: having the doctrine of enumerated powers—the principle that the U.S. Constitution leaves to the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government—form the basis of a “new, limited-government political movement.” But even Lee was skeptical that the idea could work.
“I told Monte that I doubted any candidate could get elected on such a platform,” Lee recalls in his book The Freedom Agenda. Monte disagreed, urging Lee to speak to a few dozen people in his home. It turned out to be the beginning of many such speeches throughout the state. And in Utah a candidate could in fact get elected on a constitutionalist platform, which Lee proved by winning a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Since then, the Tea Party has blossomed into something like the new, limited-government political movement the senator envisioned, while Lee has emerged as one of the movement’s biggest success stories—and kingmakers. Shortly after taking office, the 40-year-old freshman co-founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Most other Republicans preferred to collect Tea Party votes without getting too close.
The three Tea Party senators have led the charge for spending cuts, even when it has put them at odds with the Republican leadership. Lee has also joined DeMint in doing something else: encouraging and even endorsing conservative insurgents running in Republican primaries.
By this summer, Lee had already met with at least a half-dozen candidates, made endorsements in two Senate primaries, and launched a pair of leadership political action committees to help what he calls constitutional conservatives get elected. Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz has credited Lee with jumpstarting his GOP primary campaign for Senate against establishment favorite Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
“Mike’s early support was critical to the later endorsements we received from The Madison Project, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, each of which cumulatively build momentum. Mike was the very first to jump out there. It had a tremendous impact,” Cruz told Politico. “You’ll see a significant number of Utah donors supporting my campaign early on because he asked them to.”
FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe acknowledged that Lee’s support was the “market signal” that put Cruz on their map. Lee has also endorsed Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is the frontrunner in the primary to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Both conservatives, Flake is seen as someone who will resist even Republican spending, in contrast to Kyl, a member of the GOP leadership team.
Lee founded the Senate Constitutional Conservatives Fund, a leadership PAC modeled on the one DeMint used to raise money for conservative primary candidates in 2010. He would like to start an associated “super PAC,” which can essentially raise unlimited funds, pushing the envelope of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Whether federal legislators can establish super PACs remains an open legal question. What is not open to question is whether Lee would target GOP incumbents. He told TheHill: “It would be hypocritical of me if I were to say never, ever under any circumstances would I try to support someone trying to come here the same way I came here.”
The way Lee came to the Senate is precisely what makes him a role model for other Tea Party conservatives. Lee challenged a three-term incumbent, Sen. Robert Bennett, and helped push him out at the Utah Republican state convention. Bennett wasn’t hobbled by scandal. And he was by most measures a fairly conventional conservative, with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 84.
Yet Bennett voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), a $700 billion Wall Street bank bailout regarded by many conservatives as an example of everything that was wrong with Washington. CNN asked Utah Tea Party activist David Kirkham if he really wanted to send Bennett packing because of one vote. “That one vote was pretty toxic,” Kirkham replied. “That one vote affected a lot of things, changed the rules of the game. President Bush said that we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market, and fundamentally, we just don’t agree.”
That was how the Utah GOP convention delegates saw things too. Lee won on the first ballot, businessman Tim Bridgewater on the next two, and the senator didn’t advance to the primary ballot. This wasn’t exactly unprecedented—conservative delegates had previously booted Congressman Chris Cannon for supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants—but it sent a message across the country. Lee edged out Bridgewater in the primary, 51 percent to 49 percent. The ousted senator’s son, Jim Bennett, crossed party lines to become a paid staffer for Lee’s Democratic opponent.
“If he is elected,” the younger Bennett said of Lee, “he will either be ineffective as a senator or he will disappoint many of the followers who helped elect him.” The argument was that Lee was simply too ideological to be a good senator. Nevertheless, Lee won the election with 62 percent of the vote and there is little sign his conservative supporters are disappointed.
Lee drafted a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before he even took office. A large part of his book The Freedom Agenda is dedicated to explaining, as the subtitle says, “Why a balanced budget amendment is necessary to restore constitutional government.” Lee called up Chris Chocola, the former congressman who heads the Club for Growth, to pitch the amendment almost as soon as he got to Washington. “We need a permanent structural limitation on Congress’ authority to borrow and spend,” the senator tells me.
In July, when Congress had no plan to raise the debt ceiling with less than a month to go, Lee unveiled the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act. The measure contained immediate spending cuts, binding caps on federal spending as a percentage of the economy, and a balanced budget amendment as conditions for increasing the debt limit. Conservatives inside and outside Congress rallied to the proposal, which the Obama administration dismissed as extreme. For a while, it was the only game in town.
Ultimately, Republican leaders cut a deal with the White House. Lee did not use Senate procedure to block the bipartisan debt ceiling agreement, but he did vote against it. More importantly, Cut, Cap, and Balance exerted rightward pressure on House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, scuttling the former’s hopes of a “grand bargain” that could have proved unpalatable to conservatives and the latter’s constitutionally dubious plan to empower the president to extend the debt limit.
Lee was one of just a handful of senators who supported Rand Paul’s budget proposal, which contained $500 billion in spending cuts in a single year even without touching entitlements. Lee indirectly supplied a second vote for Senator Paul’s budget as well, with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch—likely afraid of going the way of Robert Bennett—giving an aye. (The other surprise vote in favor came from McConnell, who had unsuccessfully backed Paul’s primary opponent in their home state of Kentucky.) Hatch also supported Cut, Cap, and Balance and has ended his career-long practice of voting to confirm Democratic Supreme Court nominees.
Lee’s constitutional conservatism has also manifested itself in other less conventional ways. He was one of just three Republican senators to vote against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, joining Paul and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. Lee demanded that the Obama administration seek congressional authorization for its “kinetic military action” in Libya and, unlike fellow Republican freshman Marco Rubio of Florida, expressed opposition to the mission itself.
“I’m frustrated by our involvement in Libya,” Lee says. “We’ve never to this day heard the president provide a military explanation” as opposed to a humanitarian one. He said the administration was circumventing the War Powers Resolution.
Lee doesn’t seem to be a fire-breather on foreign policy generally. “9/11 was a tragic moment,” he says. “The jury is still out on Iraq and Afghanistan as to whether we spent a lot of money without eliminating threats to our national security or we took out some significant threats.” Either way, Lee notes that the American people are ready to “start winding things down” and “wrapping things up” on both fronts, and he doesn’t say anything that suggests he disagrees.
If this sounds modest, it still may be enough to qualify Lee as the strictest constitutionalist in Congress who didn’t come out of the Ron Paul movement. To him, the fiscal crisis caused by excessive borrowing and spending is really a symptom of unconstitutional government. “Congress has stopped viewing itself as a legislative body of limited, enumerated powers,” he says. “We need to restore that.”
The senator’s father was Rex Lee, who served as U.S. solicitor general in the Reagan administration and instilled in his family a love of constitutional law. “I may have been thirty before I realized that not every family discusses the Constitution’s Presentment Clause over mashed potatoes,” the younger Lee jokes in his book. The future senator graduated from Brigham Young Law School, where his father had been the founding dean, and clerked for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
What distinguishes Lee from many prominent legal conservatives is that he is quite explicit in arguing that much of what the federal government does is unconstitutional. In fact, that was a big part of his campaign pitch in Utah. Lee started the Article I Society, named after Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which lists “nearly every power possessed by Congress.”
Most unusual for a politician, Lee acknowledges that major entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are hard to square with an original understanding of the Constitution, though he does think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could have been justified by Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. (He disagrees with basing civil rights on an expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause.)
Needless to say, these views have made Lee exhibit A in liberal polemics against the Tea Party. The Center for American Progress prominently featured Lee in its dire warning that Tea Partiers “have a plan for the Constitution, and it isn’t pretty.” Lee and other conservatives were accused of wanting to “repeal the 20th century” and impose an “authoritarian agenda.” The document did not explain what was authoritarian about a smaller, more limited government.
Lee emphasizes that programs Americans have grown to depend on would have to be reformed gradually. But he has little patience for those who believe questioning an unconstrained federal government constitutes extremism. “What is truly bizarre and extreme,” he says, “is a $15 trillion debt. The American people agree with me on this one.”
That last proposition will be tested in the 2012 election. While Lee has predicted next November could result in a conservative triumph that will make the 2010 midterms look like “a Sunday picnic” for Democrats, it is unclear how much appetite the right, much less the rest of the country, still has for his brand of constitutionalism.
Herman Cain, the Republican presidential candidate most popular with Tea Party sympathizers and self-described conservatives, supported TARP at the time. There is little evidence he has paid any real political price, much less found his stance disqualifying. (Mitt Romney was also pro-TARP, but his base consists of Republicans of the sort who stuck with the man Lee unseated and Romney backed.)
In terms of specific spending cuts, the GOP presidential field is mostly to the left of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, let alone Rand Paul. When Senator Paul’s father proposed $1 trillion in budget reductions, Cain complained the plan would “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it a “non-starter.” Gingrich had previously dismissed the Ryan budget, which phases spending cuts in much more slowly, as “right-wing social engineering.”
Virginia Senate candidate Jamie Radtke declared at the inaugural meeting of Lee’s Senate Tea Party Caucus, “the Tea Party movement would not exist today if the Republicans hadn’t failed under the Bush years.” Yet her primary campaign against George Allen, based largely on the former senator and governor’s complicity in those failures, appears stalled. And Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania GOP senator who joined Allen in assenting to most Bush-era government expansions, has actually emerged as the chief ideological enforcer at Republican presidential debates.
Toward the end of The Freedom Agenda, Lee discusses conflicting views about the meaning of his election. “Some predict this type of conservative, grassroots mobilization…will become far more common in future election cycles,” he writes. “Others have dismissed the trend as a short-lived anomaly in which a few limited-government Davids, by some lucky twist of fate, ousted establishment Goliaths.”
The senator concludes that “the American people will soon prove one of these arguments correct.” In the meantime, Mike Lee is looking for Republican candidates serious about cutting the federal budget down to its constitutional size. “Voters in Utah were ready for a new generation of conservative leaders,” he says, hoping that this will prove true in the rest of the country as well.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.