Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Heritage's Mike Lee: What's next for conservatives?

You know me, I'm all about equal time and the Fairness Doctrine, so I'm linking here in full a speech on October 29 by former Senator Mike Lee, the director of the Heritage Foundation.

Very quickly, Lee has taken Heritage from a right-wing think tank to an activist wing of the Tea Party; and many on the Right call Lee the leader of the Tea Party movement.  He very much positions himself as outside the "Republican establishment," whatever that is. 

(Everybody except John Boehner and Mitch McConnell? I guess "outside the establishment" is what you call yourself instead of "outside the Beltway" when you're actually located inside the Beltway, like Heritage is.)

Just a few interesting lines I'd like to point out that sound OK on the surface, until you get to the ideas part. Such as:

It’s hard to believe, but by the time we reach November 2016, we will be about as far – chronologically speaking – from Reagan’s election as Reagan’s election was from D-Day! Yet as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket.

The result is that to many Americans today, especially to the underprivileged and middle class, or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all.

This is the reason the G.O.P. can seem so out of touch. And it is also the reason we find ourselves in such internal disarray.

And here's Lee's guidepost:

Where do we begin? A generation ago, conservatives forged an agenda to meet the great challenges facing Americans in the late 1970s: inflation, poor growth, Soviet aggression,along with a dispiriting pessimism about the future of the nation and their own families.

I submit that the great challenge of our generation is America’s growing crisis of stagnation and sclerosis – a crisis that comes down to a shortage of opportunities.

This opportunity crisis presents itself in three principal ways: immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty; insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else’s expense.

OK, so far, so good. Sounds like good 'ole liberal rhetoric, I'm liking it.

Lee goes on to talk about breaking up corrupt cronyism of business and government elites, of backing the "little guy" again, and helping the middle class with one of its biggest expenses: health care.  (Lee supports "a comprehensive health reform plan proposed by Representatives Steve Scalise and Phil Roe" that I'm sure you all heard about when it was rolled out in September...?) 

Lee says there are, "[F]our leading challenges facing middle-class families today: the cost of raising children; the difficulties of work-life balance; the time Americans lose away from work and home, stuck in traffic; and the rising costs of and restricted access to quality higher education."  

OK, maybe those aren't America's top four problems, but they're definitely up there, so I'm liking the rhetoric.

He says the Republicans have proposed legislation to address these four challenges.  Now we get into the problems....

To address the cost of raising children -- about $300,000 per child, cites Lee -- he proposes (yep, you guessed it), a tax cut for the middle class.  Yet more right-wing social engineering through the tax system.  I'm against trying to do policy through the tax code.  That's what our tax code is so darn complicated.  Moreover, what's to say the right won't turn around and call these same middle-class families "moochers" and part of the "47 percent" that doesn't pay net income tax?  

Anyhow, Mike Lee says the middle class should keep more of its own money, "not give parents more of other people's money."  That's just dandy, but the median U.S. income is $25,000. Double that and a two-income family with two children would owe only about $500 in income tax anyway.  So what good would a $5,000 tax cut do them?

Mike Lee has the answer: a $2,500 per-child tax credit that can offset income and payroll taxes.  Now he's talking about taking the 47 percent of moochers and exempting them from the only taxes they do pay, Social Security and Medicare.  What about our yawning deficits? What about, "You should pay taxes if you want to participate in our democracy"? No answer. It's just more conservative voodoo economics: cut everybody's taxes, then cry about deficits. And then call the middle-class beneficiaries of this tax system a bunch of moochers.

Next, Lee proposes old-school liberal policies: mandatory flex-time for working parents; and more investment in infrastructure and mass transit, so that people don't spend so much time in traffic.  Fine!  Great!  Welcome to the Democratic Party.  

But there's always a "but."  Mike Lee proposes to to build new highways and mass transit... but by cutting taxes (you knew that had to be part of it!) and shifting responsibility for infrastructure projects to the states.  That's not a solution; that's passing the buck. That's magical thinking.

Finally, Lee proposes opening up the accreditation system for higher education and vocational training. This is a pretty complicated subject and I won't go into it now, except to say that accreditation for alternative forms of education like apprenticeships and e-learning matters because only accredited institutions are eligible to participate in federal student loan programs. In other words, Lee wants to allow more educational-training providers to benefit from federally subsidized student loans. This could be good or bad -- bad if it ends up as a federal subsidy for businesses to provide training to their employees, which would not really be the intention.

Lee concludes in very un-Tea Party-like fashion [emphasis mine]:

Especially in the wake of recent controversies, many conservatives are more frustrated with the establishment than ever before. And we have every reason to be. But however  justified, frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. Outrage, resentment, and intolerance are gargoyles of the Left. For us, optimism is not just a message – it’s a principle. American conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude, and cooperation, and trust, and above all hope. It is also about inclusion. [Ha! -- That made me LOL. -- J]  Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics.

But anger sure can pack a town hall meeting!  A message of exclusion -- of welfare-mooching minorities, gate-crashing illegals, and culture-subverting gays and intellectuals -- sure turns 'em out at the polls!  Indeed, Lee's message here is not hopeful -- it's hypocritical and delusional. Anger and fear are the real drivers of today's Republican Party, not optimism.

Interestingly, in a recent highly quoted interview about politics, English comedian Russell Brand quoted the same phrase: that the Left's problem is that it is always looking for heretics -- those who are not pure enough -- while the Right is looking for allies. That may be true of Britain, but the opposite is true in the U.S. right now. The Tea Party is on a perpetual RINO hunt; whereas Democrats are too embarrassed to even call themselves "liberal" anymore; they're grateful to let any politician put a [D] behind his name, even he's a Republican by 1991 standards.

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