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Mike Lee And The GOP’s Lessons From The Godfather

Mike Lee is essentially asking the question: Why do we accept the premise that the GOP either needs to be all Fredo or all Sonny?


Mike Lee gave an interesting speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday – the text is here. This line sticks out to me: “If our generation of conservatives wants to enjoy our own defining triumph, our own 1980 – we are going to have to deserve it. That means sharpening more pencils than knives. The kind of work it will require is neither glamorous nor fun – and sometimes it isn’t even noticed. But it is necessary.” I like this. It doesn’t set aside the knife, but it does suggest it should be deployed with more selectivity.

The thread that runs from Lee’s prior remarks at Heritage is worth considering. It seems to me that the Utah Senator is attempting something important and useful – building a philosophical bridge between the hardcore populists and the more traditional structure of Washington conservatism, attempting to prove that these tribes can coexist and actually work together. Lee is essentially arguing that saying “competitive primaries are a good thing” and “we need to unify around positive reforms” are not irreconcilable or mutually exclusive. In fact, such approaches are consistent and mutually reinforcing given the shifting politics within the GOP today.

The current construction suggests that one the one side are constructive, moderate (in tone) traditionalists, while these new hotheads have no interest in policy formation. But what has that policy formation looked like? Consider all the things the establishment (as always, read: the money) has wanted to do in Washington since Obama’s re-election along the lines of policy innovation: they wanted to pass immigration reform with Rubio; pass gun control with Toomey; fight over the debt ceiling toward the end of rolling back sequester cuts, not over Obamacare; and all along, insult Ted Cruz on background as much as possible. These asks all failed in one way or another, in part because they aren’t actually policy innovations, they’re poll-chasing.

What Lee seems to recognize is that one of the right’s biggest weaknesses at the moment is the failure to learn the right lessons from Ronald Reagan. For all the Reagan worship on the right, we forget that some of the most useful lessons from his time have to do with how he set expectations – laying down a marker, and then working backward from it to achieve his goals. The greatest piece of policy innovation in the Cold War wasn’t the MX Missile or SDI – it was Reagan’s audacious claim that his policy was: “We win and they lose.” The tactics he used to get there were criticized at the time by many on the right, but starting with that simple goal, no matter how ambitious, clarified the terms of the fight. Today the right tends not to start from the endpoint in the same manner. Instead of beginning with the idea of what the farm bill out to look like, we complain about how it does, making each incremental change look smaller and smaller.

The best approach to an enemy within a military campaign is not the fight over annihilation: it’s surrounding the enemy while leaving an escape route open for retreat, an approach where you get to choose where your opponent ends up as opposed to putting them in a situation which represents an existential threat. Consider John Cornyn or Richard Burr for a moment: is the real aim to drive them from office with primary challenges, or to force them to vote with conservatives out of their own self-interest? The latter is a powerful motivator for most people, but particularly for U.S. Senators.

All that’s needed is for the right leaders to step forward who understand the importance of all of this, who aren’t all soft answers or hard-edged knife fighters. Why do we accept the premise that the GOP either needs to be all Fredo or all Sonny? Let the donor class and consultants keep insisting they deserve respect – they’re smart, not dumb like everyone says. Let the Tea Party id keep bull-rushing in to kick traitors in the street. Reagan/Vito’s gone now, but we need to learn the right lessons from him. We have more than a few Michaels wasting away in Sicily. Why don’t we call him back?