Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) told Tea Party activists at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill on Thursday that it is time for the movement to develop its vision for what America should look like–then start moving toward implementing it.
“I remind myself from time to time that as Constitutional conservatives, it’s our job to find converts,” Lee said after opening with a joke about a Christian fatally fighting with another Christian from a barely different denomination. “We need to spend more effort creating converts than identifying heretics.”
Lee’s remarks, given to a luncheon of about 200 Tea Party activists as part of a side event at the larger Tea Party Patriots five year anniversary conference, focused on what he considers to be the next stages of the Tea Party movement. He said activists should focus on developing a new agenda designed to force the Republican party’s leadership to actually rally around conservative principles based on constitutional conservative ideas.
“Right now, we’re hindered to some extent by virtue of the fact that there is sometimes–and there certainly is right now–a natural tension that can exist within a political party, with that political party’s elected leadership on the one hand and that’s party’s base and grassroots on the other hand,” Lee said. “That tension has created a gulf, a hole, in the Republican Party that I believe is actually the size and the shape of a conservative reform agenda, something that we can get behind, something that we can all unify around, something that will help renew and restore faith in the American dream.”
Lee compared this move towards developing an agenda to the progression of pre-Revolutionary War patriots protesting against the British toward the development of the U.S. Constitution several years later. He said today’s Tea Party movement is not a new phenomenon–it is very similar to, and actually an extension of, the Boston Tea Party in 1773. “In many respects, our movement didn’t start five years ago,” Lee said.
“Our movement started, in a sense, in 1773, a moment when some American patriots boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and they did so at a moment when they were frustrated with their then-London-based national government,” he explained. “The national government was taxing us, as Americans, too much. That national government was regulating us quite aggressively, and it was doing so from a distant locale–a distant government that effectively recognized no boundaries around its authority. It was so far from us, both physically and mentally, and was slow to respond to our needs. Does any of this sound familiar?”
Lee recounted how those American patriots seized the crates of English tea aboard that ship in Boston harbor, and dumped it into the dirty water below–as a form of “protest against the national government they did not want.”
While that was “an essential moment in our history,” Lee said that had those protesters “stopped at simply protesting against a government they did not want” and did not fight the Revolutionary War and develop the ideas and framework that led to the Constitution, America would not be what it is today. “The Boston Tea Party would have been nothing more than a footnote in our history,” he said. “They had to do more than that. They had to move beyond Boston. And it took them 14 years before they got from Boston–conservatives protesting against a kind of national government they did not want–until they got to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was where, 14 years later, they embraced and identified and put into writing the kind of government we did want.”
Similarly, Lee said, the Tea Party movement must move toward that type of an end. While it has shown time and again–and will continue to show–what type type of government it does not want, the movement must begin to develop and identify the direction it thinks the country should go. “We will not stop [having Boston moments],” Lee said. “But we must have our Philadelphia moments as well. We got to have our eye always on Philadelphia, and we must keep moving in the direction of Philadelphia while not ever ignoring or neglecting Boston.”
Lee said the GOP went through a nearly identical transition back in 1976, when the grassroots wanted Ronald Reagan but the party didn’t–and Democrat Jimmy Carter ended up winning the White House when Reagan lost the nomination. But because Reagan had won the battle of ideas, the Party eventually was forced to coalesce behind him in 1980, and he resoundingly took back the White House for Republicans and launched a new era of conservatism.
“So in that respect, it’s much more important than rather just picking a fight, we’ve got to move forward with something,” Lee said. “If we grasp onto an agenda, then what we will find is that we’ll catch the Washington, D.C., establishment off guard. Conservatives in the late 1970s didn’t just purge; they persuaded. They persuaded with a conservative reform agenda and they won.”
“This is what we need to do, and this is what we need to do right now,” he stated. “The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and destroying heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate–not a civil war.”
While the establishment has money, “prestige,” and “more control over the media,” Lee said they do not have the right ideas needed to win intellectual and political battles.
“When we lead with them [conservative ideas], we win,” Lee said.
Lee walked through some top line items for what he thinks a “conservative reform agenda” should look like. “First I think it has to be comprehensive,” he said. “It has to be something that unifies conservative principles in a way that looks at where we are starting with the government that we have perhaps rather than starting with the government that we wish we had and focus on a wide array of challenges focusing on tackling our debt and our deficit, and tackling regulatory overreach, tackling the need for more domestic energy development and opening up our public lands… and dealing with the healthcare problems brought on by Obamacare, and dealing with the problems of high taxes and so on and so forth.”
“Any concept of reform must presuppose that it is conservative,” Lee said, adding that if it is not conservative “we won’t get there.”
“And finally, it must speak directly to Americans,” he added, and address what he said “some have characterized as the single greatest challenge of our time: ‘America’s opportunity crisis.'”
Such an agenda is aimed at winning the hearts and minds of actual Americans rather than special interests. It would focus on helping the poor “trapped” in a system that incentivizes welfare collection over work and ending “insecurity” in the middle class–all while keeping the government from continuing to help foster “cronyism” by doing favors for wealthier Americans who can essentially purchase access to Washington.
Lee’s work on this topic–and the work of Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who is scheduled to speak on Thursday evening as the keynote speaker of this conference’s closing dinner–is expected to continue throughout the year.