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October 30, 2013 4:09 PM Lee’s Leap

By Ed Kilgore

I’m constantly amazed at how little Republican politicians have to do to get hailed as “wonks” or “reformers” or deep thinkers. Or maybe it’s just that conservative intellectuals have too few pols they can point to as having any idea about the deeper questions affecting politics (I think of poor tepid Tim Pawlenty, whose terrible 2012 presidential campaign bore the hopes and dreams of would-be “Sam’s Club Republicans.”).

So it’s no surprise to see Mike Lee get virtually carried around the small room of conservative wonks for a speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday. Indeed, Sam’s Club Republican theorist Reihan Salam was among the first to write up Lee’s speech as significant (in no small part because it promoted expanded child tax credits, which are the centerpiece of the agenda that Salam and Ross Douthat have been promoting for years to make the GOP more friendly to its own white-working-class voters). Yes, there was also quite a bit of snickering from outside the conservative ranks at the idea that Mike Lee in a speech at the Heritage Foundation was in any position to point the way to a frustration that transcended the “anger” and “frustration” he deplored. Here’s TNR’s Marc Tracy:

I suppose if we set the bar low enough that insects can do the limbo with it, you could read his speech as endorsing a less insane way forward. But here is what happened Tuesday: One of Washington’s most staunchly pro-shutdown politicians, appearing at maybe Washington’s most important pro-shutdown organization, pointedly refused to condemn the shutdown or suggest he would not support a future shutdown if it meant trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

But putting all that aside, if you can, Lee’s speech did not exactly blow anybody socks off in terms of the boldness or originality of his policy ideas. As noted, the Big Bold Child Tax Credit has been a staple of neo-natalists on the Right for eons. Lee talked about promoting family-work balance, an important issue, but offered nothing more than the Chamber of Commerce’s eternal offer of comp time as opposed to overtime pay. He also deplored family time wasted in long commutes, but the best he could do there is to revive the Reagan-era idea of devolving responsibility for transportation programs (and the “room” to raise non-federal fuel taxes) to the states. And he called for a reform of rules limiting subsidized student loans to accredited institutions in a remarkably unclear passage that left me suspecting he was shilling for for-profit schools.

Compare it to the worst of Bill Clinton’s many agenda-setting speeches, and it would be considered pedantic if not pathetic. But Lee did say one laudable thing that could set a good precedent for other conservatives:

[T]he heart of the [tax] plan is a new, additional $2,500 per-child tax credit that can offset parents’ income and payroll-tax liability. This last point is crucial. Many middle-class parents may pay no income taxes — but they do pay taxes. Working parents are not free riders.

Eureka! A Republican pol finally concedes the working poor aren’t “lucky duckies” after all! I’m willing to overlook Lee’s bad behavior on the shutdown and his less-than-scintillating policy thinking if he’ll only make that point routinely for a while.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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