Of the four senators who were elected in the Tea Party wave that unseated establishment-backed Republican primary candidates in 2010, only one is not running for president. He's the one you should be paying attention to.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah says he doesn't want to be president. Instead, it seems like he's trying something that would be even more meaningful if it succeeds: reshaping conservatism for the 21st century.
Lee is one of the most conservative members of Congress. He has a 100 percent score from the Club for Growth, a 100 percent score from the American Conservative Union, and a 99 percent score from the Heritage Foundation. He was one of the leaders of the effort to shut down the government over ObamaCare.
But he's also been putting forward some of the most interesting GOP policy proposals we've seen in many years. He (with Rand Paul) was one of only two Republicans to vote against renewing certain portions of the Patriot Act. Lee has voted against provisions allowing indefinite detention without trials of those deemed enemy combatants. Lee's Tea Party conservatism isn't just economically libertarian. He also wants to protect civil liberties. This concern is something that is almost unknown on the right.
Lee has also been the cosponsor (with Marco Rubio) of one of the most interesting tax plans to emerge from the right for many years. The Lee proposal, from last year, would have focused on working-class families, by dramatically expanding the child-tax credit and making it partially refundable against payroll taxes, which means that poor families that don't pay federal income tax would get money under the plan. The plan would also reform America's most successful anti-poverty program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, to turn it into a wage subsidy. This would make it a lot more efficient and would help improve remuneration for low-wage jobs. These are wonky ideas, but they could make the lives of millions of people significantly better. More importantly, they represent a shift in focus for the right on taxes. No longer will GOP tax policy just be about cutting tax rates for high-income taxpayers. Lee is proposing conservative tax reforms that might actually help working people.
But the way Lee has been really unconventional is by promoting criminal justice reform. He has proposed expanding judicial discretion in sentencing and improving prison quality in order to reduce recidivism. Conservatives have been known for decade as the people who want to lock up more people for longer. But there's been a shift. Religious conservatives have realized that a purely punitive approach to criminal justice is not in line with Gospel values, and that excessive prison time destroys poor families. Fiscal conservatives have seen how dramatically expensive prisons are. While this conservative war has been going on for years now in the cultural arena and in state houses, until now it lacked a conservative champion.
Lee is a very sharp conservative mind, and with a safe Senate seat, it looks like he can spend the next few decades shaping the direction of American government by becoming a new intellectual statesman on the right. It's no coincidence that the sharpest conservative in the Senate is also a Tea Party guy. An insurgent movement brings in new blood and new thinking. Lee can take more chances without alienating conservatives because he has a solid record as an intellectual conservative. But more importantly, Lee shows how the Tea Party can improve the policies of the Republican Party precisely because he is trying to approach new issues creatively from a conservative worldview.
For years now pundits have attacked the right about for its intellectual exhaustion. They sometimes had a point. As recently as 2013 even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal felt compelled to say that the GOP needed to "stop being the stupid party.” But politicians like Lee might represent a new direction. By applying timeless conservative principles to new challenges in a fresh and smart way, they show that conservative principles have a real, positive future in a changing America.