This week, Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) speech on poverty went almost virtually unnoticed. In a week in which the public was rocked by evidence of the administration’s incompetence and dishonesty, Lee was a font of optimism: “I believe the American people are poised to launch a new, bold, and heroic offensive in the war on poverty… if conservatives summon the courage to lead it.”
Lee erases two false tropes, one from the liberal establishment and one from the far-right populists. The liberal establishment proclaims conservatives hate the poor. Far right populists proclaim they hate government and would rather that it do next to nothing. He embraces a different vision: Conservatives want to do good and are prepared to refashion government to help people who cannot simply rely on the wonders (considerable as they may be) of the free market. He told the crowd:
For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.
Together, America’s free-enterprise economy and voluntary civil society enabled millions of ordinary Americans to protect themselves – and each other – from material want and social isolation … long before Lyndon Johnson tried to do better by growing and centralizing government authority.
Defenders of today’s status quo say that any critique of our welfare system is really just a thinly-veiled attempt to destroy the social safety net. But what we all should want – and what I certainly do want – is not to destroy the safety net, but to make it work.
He extolled Abraham Lincoln as the first great anti-poverty president. (“[I]n America’s original war on poverty, government did not give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other people. In Lincoln’s era that meant dredging rivers, building canals, and cutting roads. It meant the Homestead Act and land-grant universities. These public goods weren’t designed to make poverty more tolerable – but to make it more temporary. They reduced the time it took to get products to market, increased access to banks and land, and increased the speed at which knowledge could be developed and shared.”
In the 21st century Lee argues:
Our federal government has become overwhelmed with outdated institutions and dysfunctional policies making it harder for Americans on the margins to build a good life for themselves and their families.
Our education policies trap poor kids in failing schools, and our broken tax code treats marriage and work as costly burdens rather than essential pathways to personal happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile, we have a health care system that confines the most vulnerable among us to the lowest quality care and criminal justice laws that tear apart families and fracture communities.
A truly comprehensive anti-poverty agenda must address these poverty traps wherever they exist. To make poverty temporary, rather than simply tolerable, such an agenda must not only correct – but transcend – existing policies. . . .
This is a critical point to remember in our fight against poverty: some of our most important investments will be not in economic capital, but in human and social capital. This begins, of course, with everyone’s primary source of human and social capital: the family.
People of good will can disagree about whether government policy should privilege families, in recognition of their unique role in the pursuit of happiness and justice. But I think everyone should be able to at least agree that government should not unfairly penalize families.
That’s why I’ve introduced a pro-family, pro-growth tax reform plan designed not just to grow the economy, but to increase freedom and opportunity for America’s low-income earners and working families. I’m working on a new version of the plan now with my friend, Senator Marco Rubio.
What wasn’t in the speech — paranoia about government, odes to the ability of the free market to lift all boats, isolating government as the only problem, fixation on the cost rather than the quality of government programs, indifference to the “47 percent,” and suspicion about opponents’ motives — was just as important as what was in it. When conservatives speak in this way they are not “selling out” or “pulling their punches.” They are demonstrating that sincere modern conservatism is optimistic, inclusive, practical and results-oriented. As long as liberals are intent on peddling the same failed policies they have been offering for half of a century and “libertarian-ish” right-wingers are intent on displaying their animosity toward government, they will find a formidable opponent in anyone who carries a message similar to Lee’s.
The public knows already that government can be inept and overreaching. They don’t need high-decibel politicians to repeat this ad infinitum. They need leaders who will level with them and make things better. Lee serves as a model for the tone and content conservatives should seek to emulate.