"We've had a 75 or 80 year run with some really aggressive progressive policies," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "They haven't worked. They have enhanced America's opportunity deficit, and the American people want a more conservative government."
In 2010, Lee launched a successful primary challenge to three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett and went on to win the general election with 61 percent of the vote. Lee credits hotly contested primary elections not just with his own career but with keeping the Republican Party accountable to its constituents and the values it claims to hold.
"In order for the Republican Party, or any political party for that matter, to be able to lay any claim to be a party of principle, there needs to be a robust debate within that party. And for that to occur I think primary elections will always need to happen," Lee tells Reason TV's Nick Gillespie.
Lee talks about the rise of the Tea Party faction in Congress (of which he is a leader), why the GOP is failing to connect with millennials, and the role of religion in politics. A graduate of Brigham Young University, Lee says his Mormon faith shapes his views on the proper role of government, but adds
As a voter what I look for is whether somebody shares my view of government and its proper role. That person may or may not share my faith; that person may or may not have any faith. I'm hiring them not to be my minister. I'm hiring them to represent me in government. I want to know what they think the proper role of government is.
About 20 minutes.
Camera by Amanda Winkler and Meredith Bragg. Edited by Winkler.
Music by Onyx Ashanti (http://onyx-ashanti.com/)
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Here is a rush transcript of the interview. All quotes should be checked against the audio for accuracy.
GILLESPIE: Hi I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and today we're talking with Senator Mike Lee. He is one of the architects, and I'd argue probably the intellectual heavyweight of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, certainly in the Senate and the tea-party faction. Senator Lee, thanks for talking to us.
LEE: Thank you.
GILLESPIE: Out of the box, the export-import bank which you've identified just as a kind of exemplum of cronyism looks like it's finally on its last legs. Do you think its not going to be reauthorized and if so, what does that tell us about the spirit of reform both in D.C. generally as well as the Republican Party.
LEE: I think there's a growing movement in this country that is against having government pick winners and losers in industry and the export-import bank is a sort of example of this sort of thing. Look, when US manufacturers can obtain financing in the private marketplace, we ought not have a government agency set up specifically to do this. Otherwise we run the risk of having the government pick winners and losers in industry.
GILLESPIE: What changed? Just two years ago Eric Cantor, former majority leader who got primaryed out of his seat, led the charge on the Republican side in the house to reauthorize the export-import bank which essentially gives financing to foreign companies or foreign governments to buy US products. So what happened in two years that it went from the majority leader leading the charge to reauthorize it to him getting bounced to the curb?
LEE: I think there's a growing reluctance on the part of Americans for having government in the business sphere, for having government picking winners and losers in business. People are realizing that our national government has not done a great job of managing a whole lot of things, whether you're talking about its management of veteran's health care, its management of funds supposed to be set aside for social security or Medicare. It has done a bad of a lot of things and we shouldn't be giving it more power. We shouldn't be turning it into a business; that's what business is for; that's what the free market is for.
GILLESPIE: You in a lot of your past or continuing comments take aim at a lot of Republican policy mistakes as well as Democratic ones. Do you see the Obama Administration as, more or less, a continuation of the George Bush years in terms of growing government interference in the economy, reckless foreign policy, and reckless disregard for America civil liberties? You've outspoken in excess on the NSA, you refuse to vote in favor of the national defense reauthorization because it did not actually protect people from basically being killed by the president if he so chose. Do you see a lot of continuity between Bush and Obama and characters like you standing up with a different set of politics?
LEE: I would certainly say that civil liberties have suffered under this administration. A lot of people who were complaining about the direction we were heading in were on the last administration. I think we've seen more government surveillance under this administration and I think it's troubling to a lot of Americans. I was one of the first Republicans to join the effort to oppose the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, I voted against the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act and I did so at a time when there were very few Republicans willing to do that. We weren't even allowed to talk about all the reasons why we were voting against it, because it was still classified. Now that lot of that information has now become declassified, it's become a little bit easier to talk about.
GILLESPIE: Is Edward Snowden in your mind a patriot or hero or is he a traitor or does it not matter what he is as long as we have the information that he's helped make available?
LEE: He's not my focus. My focus is on the policies. My focus is on the fact that Americans have reason to be concerned about a government that wants to spy on them, that wants to monitor them. Americans are understandably concerned about having their metadata collected, on the scale that it is, on having the content of their electronic communications also subject to collection and subject to subsequent review.
GILLESPIE: Do you think the Republicans are going to take over the Senate in the fall and hold the house? Will we be looking at another GOP Congress come November?
LEE: I do think that's going to happen. It's going to be close but I think that the odds are very much in our favor for the Republicans taking over the Senate.
GILLESPIE: What has to change? Obviously the Republicans lost the senate within recent memory and they lost and then regained the house. What is the Republican message that is going to resonate with the American population?
LEE: I think what resonates with the public is that we're there as a party, we're there to fight for the American people, we're there to address America's growing opportunity deficit. This deficit shows up in three entry levels of our economy. It shows up in the form of immobility among the poor and security among the middle class and croyist privilege at the top of the economic latter. I think that as Republicans, as conservatives, we will fight for economic opportunity, fight to get government in the right space so that the American people can do what they do best.
GILLESPIE: Do you primarily identify as a conservative, not as a libertarian, and is that a meaningful distinction to you? What's the problem with libertarianism?
LEE: Generally I call myself a conservative, sometimes a constitutional conservative, my focus is on the fact that when we maintain a consistent effort to restrain the government's power and influence to those powers identified in the constitution, that's where we strike the right balance between what kind of government we need and what kind of government we don't want.
GILLESPIE: You're written in a book that you've published in 2011 as well as your continuing work about an important aspect, which is what level of government should be administering what. Assuming a program makes sense or a policy makes sense, should it be at the federal level, should it be at the state level, should it be at the local level? Talk a little bit about your Federalism principles because in certain issues you're like, "The federal government should not even be involved in this. This should be a state and local issue." For instance recently you said that the definition of marriage should be remanded to the states or lower levels of government.
LEE: It's not that it should be remanded to the states. It's that that's a state power. It always was state power. It never was or should be federal.
GILLESPIE: What about things like drug legalization, drug policy, or online gambling? You recently introduced a law saying, "No, that's something that the federal government should really dictate online gambling policy," and that seems to be a kind of contradiction. I assume you think its ok for the states to decide on gambling if it's horse racing or something like that.
LEE: States should be the entities that decide issues of gambling that takes place within the state. But where you've got gambling that takes place online, in the online world, is an interstate and an international network of wires and that's why it really becomes an interstate exercise the minute you take it online and so really if you think about it, this is actually a necessary step to take to respect each state's right to decide whether or to what extent to allow gambling and that's necessary in order to preserve each state's right to decide that. Otherwise, you could have one state here or there authorizing gambling and if no one is able to prohibit internet gambling, then people in every state would be able to gamble.
GILLESPIE: Would that be such a horrible outcome though? Shouldn't it be up to an individual to just say, "I wanna bet on a sports game," or "I wanna bet on the Preakness even though I live 3000 miles away from the horse track?"
LEE: Again, I'm approaching this from the standpoint of Federalism. I don't think it's the federal government's job to say that every state must recognize gambling nor is it the government's job to say "no state may authorize internet gambling." This is an appropriate step toward making sure each state may decide on its own what kind of health, safety, and morals legislation it wants to come up with and the best way for the federal government to respect the sovereignty of the states is to place legislation like this so that one's state law can't be easily, or automatically, be circumvented.
GILLESPIE: You've been involved in the past couple years in two of the great political spectacles- and I don't mean that to diminish their impact- both the filibuster against the NSA when John Brennan was being nominated for CIA director and then also the filibuster about health care, defunding Obamacare, which helped precipitate a government shutdown. How do you decide, "Those are the things I'm going to the mat for?" Certainly on the latter one you took a lot of hits both in the press but also in polls and things like that. How do you decide which of those you go with and how do you think they turned out?
LEE: Well obviously people are concerned about the use of drones, not just spying through the use of drones but also attacks on American citizens. Rand Paul was trying to get a pretty simple answer out of the administration. He ended up feeling like he got an answer out of it as a result of that. With respect to the effort to defund Obamacare, this was a president who had announced as of July 2013 that he wasn't going to follow the Affordable Care Act as written, that the law itself wasn't ready to be implemented and so he effectively rewrote several provisions of Obamacare, saying that individuals would have to comply with the individual mandate but corporations won't have to comply with the employer mandate. This was wrong. At that stage, when a president does something like that, Congress's options are relatively limited. Congress has the tool that James Madison described in Federalist 58, the tool that can be found in the power of the purse. My response to all that was that if the president didn't want to implement the law as written, if the president is telling us that the law is not ready to be implemented, we're not going to fund his implementation of this law and we've got to defund it for at least a year. I think that was a reasonable response and indeed a necessary one. I predicted at the time that if we didn't do something like that, that the president's behavior would not only continue but that it would expand. Since then, we know that he has rewritten that law dozens of times. He doesn't have the power to do that; it's difficult for the course to remedy this. Short of impeachment or removal there is no other remedy that Congress can take, and we knew impeachment or removal is not going to happen, so this was the appropriate response. What was inappropriate was for the president to say, "Unless you're willing to fund everything in government, I won't let you fund anything in government and I'll shut down the government." That was wrong.
GILLESPIE: Do you think it was a failure of nerve among other opponents of Obamacare not to go to the mat on that? It was interesting. It seemed to be less about the principle and more about the pragmatics. If you were involved in that, you would suffer among voters or something like that but the principle seems pretty clear.
LEE: The principle seems pretty clear and it was disheartening to me that you had some Republicans actually join with the president in saying "Oh, guys like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz shut down the government" when it was literally the president who decided to shut down the government. It was the president who said, "Unless you fund everything in government, I won't let you fund anything in government. I'll shut it down." All of a sudden they're blending this on two relatively junior senators.
GILLESPIE: You have said that the GOP will likely take over the congress in the fall. Can we afford another GOP Congress? The last time the GOP controlled both houses of Congress they also controlled the White House but between 2001 and 2008 or so federal spending increased by over 50% in real terms, federal spending on regulation enforcement went up about 60%. You're in favor of a balanced budget amendment. How can you tell people this time when the Republicans run Congress that they will get it and that they will do it right. What message do you have to allied people's worries?
LEE: I think we've seen in recent years that the American people want conservatism to work, that they want to give it a chance. We've had a 75 or 80 year run with some really aggressive progressive policies. They haven't worked. They have enhanced America's opportunity deficit, and the American people want a more conservative government. I do think that Republicans in both houses of Congress are catching on to that.
GILLESPIE: Let me ask you about millennials. The millennial generation has voters of about 18 to 30 or so. They represent a bigger generation or cohort than the baby boomer generation. They are the future of the country whether we like it or not. They're just a big hunk of people out there. Currently the Reason/Rupp quarterly poll found that about 23% of millennials identify as Republican-leaning or say they're Republican, compared with 41% of voters who are Republican or lean Republican over the age of 30. What does the Republican Party have to do to change its message or its communication to reach young people? Why aren't millennials flocking? What do Republicans have to do to reach that generation?
LEE: First of all I think Republicans need to reach out to millennials and explain to them that ours is the party of conservatism and conservatism is the movement that wants to get the government out your business, that wants to get the government out of the practice of spying on you, and targeting you and lying to you, and wants to get the government out of the practice of intergenerational wealth redistribution. This is a problem and you've identified it pretty well in terms of government programs that result in making one group pay for another group's government program.
GILLESPIE: Where does abortion fit into your federalist system? Is that something that should be decided at the state level or is there a sanctity of life that overrides the ability of states' ability to say this is ok or not?
LEE: One of the reasons I think Roe versus Wade was wrongly decided is that I don't think that the constitution makes this a federal, constitutional issue. I think that, by and large, it should have been an area that was covered by state legislatures and state legislatures should have been able to decide, "here are the circumstances: rape, incest, life of the mother." Whatever the circumstances might be; states should have been able to make that decision.
GILLESPIE: Is that also the case with, say, marijuana legalization?
LEE: Insofar as we're talking about the bear intra-state possession I think that if we were starting from a blank slate that's probably where we should have gone, because you're not talking about an interstate shipment or international shipment, interstate production and distribution. Since Roe versus Wade, we have both federalized the issue and taken it away from the legislative process and I think that that's wrong.
GILLESPIE: Does your faith inform your politics? Should voters care about a politician or a leader's faith?
LEE: First of all, my faith informs everything I do. It certainly informs how I do my job, how I treat my family, and how I interact with other so yes it informs everything I do.
GILLESPIE: What is the essence of your faith? Is it "do unto others…"
LEE: It's following Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world, the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of mankind and made it possible for us to receive forgiveness and to be resurrected after this life. As to the second part of your question, there are many who share my faith, who don't share my view of government. I'm certainly not willing to assume as a voter that simply because someone else shares my faith that they're going to get my vote. As a voter what I look for is whether somebody shares my view of government and its proper role. That person may or may not share my faith; that person may or may not have any faith. I'm hiring them not to be my minister. I'm hiring them to represent me in government. I want to know what they think the proper role of government is. If they're running for federal office I want to know what they think the proper role of the federal government is, how they read the constitution, whether they see this as some kind of open-ended conversation-starter or whether they view it as actually meaningfully restricting the power of the federal government.
GILLESPIE: Faith in Congress, the Gallup poll just came out recently. Seven percent of people have a lot of confidence in Congress. It's a historic low. Around the Reason office the question was like, "Who are those seven percent and have they been in a cave." So it seems like there's a lot of energy towards a libertarian or a conservative movement for smaller government. How do we know that candidates and elected officials get it, that they are signing onto limited government, constitutional government, and responsible government?
LEE: I think most of the time we know whether they get it based on what they tell us. The battle lines are becoming a little clearer every day when people are learning what a true limited government conservative looks like. What a true limited government conservative is willing to say and identify as a bright-line rule.
GILLESPIE: Does that work? You famously primaryed a long time incumbent. Are primarying candidates generally a good idea, even if the challenger doesn't win? Like McDaniel versus Thad Cochran in Mississippi it's an analogous situation. Is that a place where the lines are kind of clearly drawn, where you have a guy who has been in power for a long time and always seems to be happy to go along, spend a lot of money, versus a challenger. Is there a clear choice there for you on whom to back in that situation?
LEE: In order for the Republican party, or any political party for that matter, to be able to lay any claim to being a party of principle, there needs to be a robust debate within that party. And for that to occur I think primary elections will always need to happen.