In search of ‘Mr. Republican’
The first Mr. Republican was Robert A. Taft, the Ohio senator who served as the most scathing conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal, and who later warned that America’s Cold War entanglements threatened freedom at home. His successor was Barry Goldwater, who called for rolling back the frontiers of the welfare state at home and communism abroad, and through his crushing defeat paved the way for the Great Society and a vast expansion of federal power. Goldwater inspired a generation of conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, who eventually overpowered the moderates and liberals who once played a central role in the party.
Jack Kemp crafted a less hard-edged and more optimistic “bleeding-heart conservatism,” which celebrated economic growth as a painless way to finance rising social expenditures. And Newt Gingrich, as architect of the first Republican House majority in a generation, offered a combustible mix of high-minded techno-utopianism and scorched-earth partisanship that transformed American politics.
Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference saw a whole host of Republican standouts jockeying for position, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But with the exception of Rand Paul, these men aren’t offering distinctive new visions for the GOP.
To be the next Mr. Republican (or Ms. Republican, if the current bench included more women), you need to offer a full complement of policy positions and a theory of how they fit together. The closest we’ve come to a Mr. Republican in the post-Bush years might have been Jim DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina. DeMint’s embrace of the tea party insurgency played a key role in its early success, and in its early failures. But when DeMint left electoral politics behind to run the Heritage Foundation, his pronouncements lost the weight that comes from being accountable to voters. Tom Coburn, the senator from Oklahoma, has the intellect and the political shrewdness the role of Mr. Republican demands, but his decision to retire from office removes him from the picture.
Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is a promising candidate for the role. Having spent part of his young adult years working for Kemp, Ryan has a deep understanding of the Republican coalition and what it takes to hold it together. His persuasive abilities were on full display in 2011 and 2012, when he united House Republicans around his controversial proposal to overhaul Medicare for future retirees. More recently, Ryan has been seeking out new ways to combat entrenched poverty. His ongoing efforts to identify market-oriented policy solutions are exactly what you’d want from a Mr. Republican. And though Ryan is still considered a potential presidential contender, he seems more interested in policy innovation and legislative coalition-building than in running another exhausting and dispiriting national campaign.
But Ryan isn’t the only candidate for Mr. Republican. In recent months, Mike Lee, the junior senator from Utah who defeated the veteran legislator Bob Bennett in a nomination fight that divided Republicans across the country, has emerged as something more than a tea party firebrand. Like Ted Cruz, Lee has not shied away from confrontations with party elders over tactics, like the fight to defund Obamacare.
Yet Lee has also emerged as the most vocal champion of a “conservative reform agenda,” focused not on the policy challenges that defined the Reagan era, but rather the thornier policy challenges facing the more diverse America of the 2010s, with its fragile families, bloated and unresponsive government and ongoing employment crisis.
In a largely unheralded speech at CPAC, Lee spoke of “America’s growing opportunity deficit”: of poor Americans trapped by dysfunctional welfare policies, cash-strapped middle-income families overwhelmed by the high cost of housing and a high-quality education and small businesses stymied by regulations that rig the playing field in favor of large incumbents.
Though Lee has only been in the Senate for a short period of time, he is building an ambitious policy portfolio that ranges from criminal justice reform to transportation to tax policy. He has also demonstrated a willingness to work with others. When the Tax Policy Center found that his first attempt at making the tax code friendlier for middle-income families with children would greatly increase the deficit, Lee formed a partnership with Marco Rubio to offer a new proposal that would tackle corporate taxes as well as individual taxes. One of the reasons Lee can form these partnerships is that he has no presidential ambitions, and as a Republican senator from conservative Utah, he recognizes that he can take risks other more vulnerable lawmakers can’t.
If the GOP grows strong in the post-Obama years, it won’t be because the party finds attractive presidential candidates in 2016 and beyond. Rather, it will be because of the intellectual groundwork that is being laid by party-builders like Ryan and Lee.