Utah Sen. Mike Lee, capo to shutdown godfather Ted Cruz, has seen support in his home state plummet in the wake of the failed Tea Party insurgency. Lee is falling victim to the tension at the heart of the group's philosophy: No one is ever enthusiastic about paying for someone else's priority — but everyone has priorities.
Before his rise to national prominence, Lee enjoyed modest support in Utah. Nothing exceptional, but positive on net, with 50 percent approving of his work in D.C. After the shutdown, his numbers flipped, with 51 percent disapproving. Most vocal is the state's party establishment — which Lee bucked to win his seat in 2010 — and its allies in the business communities. The Washington Post reports:
“I think people admire him for sticking to his guns and principles, but I think there are growing frustrations,” [Zions Bank president Scott] Anderson said. “If things are to happen, you can’t just stick to your principles. You have to make things work. . . . You’ve got to be practical.” …
“You don’t have ideological wack-jobs,” [former Gov. Jon] Huntsman said. “For all of its labeling as a red state, underneath it all Utah is a pretty pragmatic Western state, a just-get-it-done ethos.”
A possible future opponent for Lee, former state party chair Thomas Wright, put it like this: "I want to work with people to get things done. I want to go be a leader and build bridges, not burn them down."
That idea isn't just metaphorical, of course. Congress often has to make decisions on whether or not to provide funding to help build bridges across the country. In the House of Representatives, those decisions flow through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. But, as Businessweek reports, Shuster faces a primary challenge from a Tea Party-allied opponent — specifically because Shuster has championed public works projects.
Contrast the comments the political director for FreedomWorks —"Shuster is a big-pork Republican and his challenger is by all appearances someone we can back" — with the Chamber of Commerce.
Shuster is “committed to business, committed to infrastructure, wants to decrease regulation, speed up project delivery, find opportunities for private investment and maintain and increase public investment,” said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said Halvorson is “disingenuous” to attack a chairman for doing his job.
We've noted the Tea Party-business split previously, particularly as it pertains to fundraising. We've also noted the role that earmarks used to play on Capitol Hill, funding allocations for various things, including infrastructure projects, that once were a tool for building support for otherwise tricky policy measures. In large part due to conservative and Tea Party objections, earmarks were informally banned in 2010. (Among those who oppose that ban: Shuster.)
What earmarks allowed was easy approval of locally important projects. Elected officials liked them, because it gave them a nice photo op for their local papers. There were projects that received funding that shouldn't have, certainly, but in general, it was a way of facilitating the consensus-building work of Congress. Senators and representatives constantly have to make decisions about supporting things that don't directly affect them or their constituents. In the current environment, that's gotten harder. No one, as we said at the outset, is enthusiastic about paying for some other state's roads, and no other state is enthusiastic about paying for yours. If any project that's important to your community came up for a national vote, would the other 99 percent of Americans back it?
That's the tension. The Tea Party objects to spending efforts, even though those efforts occasionally directly or indirectly benefit the Tea Partiers. Almost always, there's no benefit to everyone in or a majority of the group, so it becomes "pork." Being anti-government devolves into being anti-pooled resources. It's why the "you didn't build that" line became a centerpiece of the Romney campaign. The idea that government had a role to play in the common good was seen as undermining the self-reliance championed on the right (and bolstering government spending).
Now that sentiment is damaging people like Mike Lee. Utah leaders want Lee to advocate for Utah, to fight for their community. Instead, his most visible fight was to do what the Tea Party advocates. That's generally an easier fight, as we noted on Monday. Opposition is easier than consensus-building — particularly when you don't have much flexibility in what you can offer the person with whom you're negotiating.
In an editorial published at Fox News on Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn, who has himself come under fire from GOP conservatives, advocated for increased unity in the party. Cornyn outlines the policy areas on which members of the party agree, then noting:
Moving forward, if Republicans want to maximize our leverage and achieve conservative policy gains, we must remain united and focus on issues where President Obama and the Democrats are clearly vulnerable.
The focus on opposition stems in part from the fact that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. It also reflects that the engine of the party is a group that spends its time being the 99 percent of the country that objects to any government role in any other community. Mike Lee's job is to figure out the middle ground on behalf of his 1 percent. His choice to join the Tea Party majority — not adhering to Utah's "just-get-it-done ethos" — isn't making him any more popular.