Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) gave the most interesting GOP response to the State of the Union. Although not without flaws, it showed how far he and the right flank of the GOP have come since the disastrous government shutdown.

On the positive side, Lee gave a succinct and accurate account of the poverty problem:

  • immobility among the poor, who are being  trapped in poverty by big-government programs;
  • insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead;
  • and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.

He also gave credit to and highlighted a number of conservative reforms that offer an alternative to failed liberal statism:

Senator Rand Paul and I are working with some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress to reform the federal criminal-justice system – to help keep violent predators behind bars while creating opportunities for reformed, nonviolent offenders to return to the families and neighborhoods that so desperately need them.?xml:namespace prefix = "o" ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /

Senator John Cornyn has legislation that would empower states to improve K-12 education across the country. Senator Tim Scott has reforms to improve our job-training programs. And I’ve introduced a bill to modernize higher education, making it more accessible and affordable for lower-income and non-traditional students.

Congressman Tom Graves has a transportation-reform bill to ensure our infrastructure dollars are invested in roads and bridges, and not wasted on bureaucrats and special interests.

Congressman Mike Pompeo introduced a bill to end all federal subsidies for the energy industry. And others are working on proposals to do the same for every industry – so that business profits are won from customers, not through political connections. After all, if we’re going to reform welfare, we really should start with corporate welfare.

One proposal that should directly help you and your family is a bill I have introduced to simplify our tax code, and provide relief from the hidden double-tax Washington currently imposes on working parents, especially moms and dads in the middle class.

Too often the left gets away with insisting the GOP has no ideas while the far right insists the “establishment” has nothing to offer. Both are false.

In addition, Lee gave a brief overview of the Obamacare alternative: “Health-care policy used to give too much power to insurance companies; Obamacare now gives far too much power to government. We know that real reform will put health-care dollars and decisions where they belong: in the hands of patients and families and their doctors and nurses. So reformers in both the House and the Senate are hard at work developing new, patient-centered reforms to control health-care costs, ensure access to affordable coverage for all Americans, and provide extra help for the poor and the sick.”

In contrast to the tired nostrums of “small government” and unrealistic assumptions that free markets will cure poverty, he explained, modern conservatism has to be about something bigger: “Not just by cutting big government, but by fixing broken government. Not just by making government smaller but by promoting bigger citizens, stronger families and more heroic communities. Our goal should be an America where everyone has a fair chance to pursue happiness — and find it. That’s what it looks like when protest grows into reform.”?xml:namespace prefix = "o" ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /

All of that was solid, and, by the way, left Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) trite anti-government recitation seeming outdated and empty.

Lee’s speech had some weaknesses that deserve attention, although they should not overshadow the strength of the rest of his remarks.

First, he led off with an overly long, pedantic spiel about 1773, Boston, the Revolution, etc. I hate to break it to conservatives, but no one not already a movement conservative cared to listen to this, and the long intro could have turned off many voters before they got to the more critical part of the speech. I know he thinks all that is important, but he needs to keep in mind his audience and potential audience.

Second, he missed the mark when he says: “But where does this new inequality come from? From government — every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats and special interests.” That is partially true, but it fails to highlight the larger factors at play including globalization, family disintegration (which he has talked about at length) and even mate selection (educated, well-off people marry each other). I understand there is a desire on the right to blame government for most or all ills, but in the case of inequality, government is only part of the problem. Bad policy exacerbates inequality, but it is important not to make the diagnosis or the cure government-centric. After all, the real solution to poverty is to cultivate behaviors that allow upward mobility.?xml:namespace prefix = "o" ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /

And finally, gay marriage, dear conservatives, doesn’t promote inequality. Lee says, among other things, that inequality “is denying citizens their right to define marriage in their states as traditionally or as broadly as their diverse values dictate.” That’s a bit like President Obama saying minimum wage is a women’s issue. Inequality, of course, can be seen as preventing stable couples from marrying. In any event, the Defense of Marriage Act (which he and others supported) did not allow for states to self-define marriage as diversely as they saw fit; it limited that option by inflicting economic penalties on married gay couples (hence it was overturned). ?xml:namespace prefix = "o" ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /

In sum, Lee is certainly on the right track, but he would do well to avoid throwing stray bones to his base (anti-gay marriage, government is the problem) that distract from his message and are both intellectually and politically weak. If he can cut to the chase, define the problem of inequality and then offer the mix of governmental and nongovernmental responses, his star will continue to rise.