Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) stood shoulder to shoulder with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) as one of the architects of the government shutdown effort. But that doesn’t mean he need always be tied at the hip to the angriest and most demagogic figure on the right. As he has before in speeches on a family friendly tax code and the importance of civil society, he can be a constructive voice and maybe help the right move on from the shutdown debacle.  Now some will say any effort to do so would simply be a reaction to falling poll numbers. So what? If disapproval by voters isn’t reason to change one’s tune, I don’t know what is.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) leave the Senate floor before the vote to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) leave the Senate floor before the vote to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At any rate — especially since I’ve be tough on Lee when I thought he deserved it — I am compelled to applaud, albeit with a few reservations, what appears to be a new, more constructive effort. He rolled it out in a speech today at, of all places, the Heritage Foundation.

It is the closest he has come to a critique of the right wing and of the shutdown itself, calling on his party to “step back” and assess where they are headed. He reminded conservatives that the Reagan revolution first of all was successful; clearly theirs has not been. And he told the audience, the Reagan era was built on a rich intellectual tradition of economic, legal and foreign policy thinkers. He bluntly said, standing in Heritage, that the right hasn’t done this since and is still stuck in the Reagan era. The party, he said, doesn’t have a message that seems relevant “at all” to much of the country.

He then went on to describe a multi-pronged agenda, including reforms to encourage upward mobility for the poor; expanded child tax credits, flexible work-time for parents, higher education reform and an aggressive attack on cronyism. Pointing to multiple conservative health-care reform plans, he encouraged Republicans to put forth a variety of proposals instead of a single alternative to Obamacare. He also included an infrastructure plan in which states control the money under the guise of decreasing traffic and work-time commutes.

He ended with a stern admonition to fellow conservatives. “Outrage, resentment and intolerance are gargoyles of the left. For us, optimism is not just a message — it’s a principle.” And he warned that “successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics.”

Well, there is a lot there to unpack. To begin with it is noteworthy what is not in there — controversial social issues and immigration. As to the same-sex marriage issue, he offered a smart admonition that “there is another marriage debate — one concerning fatherless children, economic inequality and broken communities” that deserves as much public attention as the “other” marriage issue. Frankly, choosing fewer topics and ones that don’t cut across divisions in the GOP is probably smart politics these days, although I would hope on immigration there can be some empathetic treatment of at least those brought here illegally as children.

Second, he not so subtly is parting company with Jim DeMint and Cruz and their brand of search-and-destroy politics. He is declaring independence from those for whom contempt for governance has replaced the desire for good governance. The very act of proposing tangible policy initiatives invites discussion, collaboration and compromise. He now will have to show he can work constructively with other lawmakers and is willing to take 1/2 a loaf to further his policy objectives.

Third, there is not a lot there for job creation aside from a brief mention of corporate tax and regulatory reform. What, for example, about opening new international markets and domestic energy development? He said nothing about our national security infrastructure and defense manufacturing sectors. As a result, much of Lee’s agenda sounds like he is figuring out how to cope with a static economy rather than how to grow it.

And finally, he ignored debt and entitlement reform, which again, impact long-term growth and financial stability. These items certainly deserve mention, only to emphasize that the explosion in entitlement programs is shifting wealth from young to old and from poorer Americans to richer ones. And if he is going to propose more infrastructure spending (even if administered by the states) he should identify where the money will come from.

That said, there is much more positive than negative in Lee’s remarks, and others should join in the debate.  Lee’s decision to distance himself in tone and purpose from his shutdown squad comrades is an encouraging sign, one that others should emulate so as to deprive the destructive forces on the right of oxygen and attention.

The challenge for Lee will be whether he defends equally creative Republicans caught in the cross-hairs of DeMint, Cruz and their ilk and whether he refrains from future political stunts and non-reality-based voting. He has until now had the luxury of voting no on just about every bargain in Congress, leaving more responsible figures (whose votes he bitterly decries) to take the hard votes. He won’t be able to keep that up and simultaneously claim grown-up status with a serious, affirmative agenda. Lee, like most of us, deserves a second chance — and this is it. Let’s see what he makes of it.