Sen. Mike Lee leads Sen. Ted Cruz from the Senate floor. (Jonathan Ernst/Teuters) U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), center, leaves the Senate floor ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), left, before the vote to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

It is hard not to be cynical about the right-wingers’ racket. They promote confrontation in which there is no hope of  victory, assail other Republicans when it fails and, along the way, raise a great deal of money and get a whole lot of media attention.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is a perfect example. On one hand, he is capable of thoughtful speeches on civil society and he has presented a family-friendly tax reform plan. However, as the Salt Lake Tribune reports:

 Sen. Mike Lee raised $249,000 in the past three months, a major haul for the first-term senator who is not up for re-election until 2016. But he also spent nearly all of it, leaving $51,600 in available funds. Lee, R-Utah, aggressively raised money off of his attempt to cut funding for Obamacare, a campaign that helped lead to the 16-day government shutdown that ended early Thursday. In the past quarter, he sent at least 13 fundraising emails tied to his “defund Obamacare” effort, in which  he tried to persuade Republicans to block any budget bill that includes money for the health law.

The report notes that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) did much better, raising $1.2 million.

Yet along with the money from a select group of donors came widespread disgust from voters, even in deep-red Utah:

A  survey by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that Lee’s approval rating dropped from 50 percent in June to 40 percent in the first week of October, when the government shutdown began. Among Republicans, his approval rating fell from 71 percent to 57 percent. When Lee comes up for re-election, he may well have a challenger from within his own party, with the most talked about candidates being former state GOP Party Chairman Thomas Wright, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and Mitt Romney’s son, Josh Romney.

There are two things going on here. First, the short-term incentives for Lee to engage in this stunt are obvious. He’s not ever going to be president of the United States and will forever be in the shadow of people like Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). But what he lacks in star power and public attention he can make up in money and more media coverage than he’s enjoyed in his entire life. It’s intoxicating, to be sure — and more than enough to necessitate an alternative reality to justify keeping it up, even beyond the bounds of logic. (We are winning. This is what voters wanted.) Second, it is a cheap thrill that ultimately does not help him with voters (hence the poll numbers) or to establish a serious legacy. He’ll forever be the second fiddle to Cruz’s exploits instead of the author of an innovative agenda on civil society.

Lee got to where he is by characterizing Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) as a squishy insider. (Bennett had a nearly impeccable conservative voting record.) However, Lee may have taken his own message too seriously. He apparently learned that you can never be disruptive and conservative enough. What he should have learned is that it is critical to stay close to your constituents and produce tangible results. He has done neither and, therefore, may be just as vulnerable to a challenge as Bennett was.

A Republican on the Hill who admires Lee’s work on civil society told me, “When I see Mike up there [at a press conference] with Ted Cruz I think, ‘Hey he doesn’t belong there.'” That may be, but it is the course he has chosen — to be a gadfly and not a fine senator. With that goes the opprobrium of conservatives at prestigious think tanks and publications, which once sung his praises.