Mike Lee on SOTU: "Protesting dysfunctional government is a great American tradition."

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) gave the Tea Party response to the State of the Union address.  He got stuck with an even less impressive backdrop than the comfortable room behind Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the official GOP response, obliging him to do the political equivalent of a standup comedy routine.  I suppose putting him on the deck of a schooner in Boston Harbor while the original Tea Party gets re-enacted in the background was probably out of the question, and nobody’s SOTU response will ever be able to match the imperial pageantry of the sitting President’s address, but I can’t shake the feeling these responses could be better staged.

As far as content was concerned, Lee’s was considerably more feisty than what the Republican Party offered, beginning with his salute to the long American tradition of protesting against dysfunctional government.. and noting that the Founders didn’t stop with futile protests:

Curiously, Lee echoes one line from Obama’s SOTU address, almost verbatim: “In America, the test of any political movement is not what the movement is against, but what it is for.”  Where Obama means this as a dismissal of any effort to retake ground from the State after liberty has been conquered – he’ll listen to your trillion-dollar plan, but don’t bore him by suggesting that maybe there shouldn’t be a trillion-dollar plan, that’s just crazy talk! – Lee made it clear that insisting on individual rights and small government is a positive agenda.  “The Founders made a point at Boston Harbor,” he said, “but they made history at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.”

Lee accused the President of paying only lip service to the true inequality crisis in America today, which he said took three principal forms: income immobility among the poor, “who are being trapped in poverty by Big Government programs”; insecurity in the middle class; and privileges for well-connected political cronies at the top.  The latter group “twists the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.”

He said the Republican establishment in Washington could be “just as out of touch to these problems as the President,” and deserved much of the blame for creating the conditions that exist today.

Lee expressed suspicion of Obama’s brand of “inequality” as a problem the government creates, and can exploit for its own political profit.  “Real inequality is trapping poor children in failing schools, to benefit bureaucrats and union bosses,” he said.  “It’s penalizing low-income parents for getting married, or getting better jobs.  It’s guaranteeing insurance companies taxpayer bailouts if ObamaCare cuts into their profits.  Inequality is blocking thousands of middle-class jobs in the energy industry as a favor to partisan donors and radical environmental activists.  Inequality is denying viable unborn children any protection under the law, while exempting unsanitary late-term abortion clinics from basic safety standards.”

He even got into the gay-marriage debate, charging that “denying citizens their rights to define marriage in their states as traditionally, or as broadly, as their diverse values dictate.”

All of these examples were part of doing what the official GOP response from Rep. McMorris Rodgers deliberately avoided: accusing Barack Obama and his Party of causing the problems, rather than merely being insincere purveyors of ineffective solutions.  Lee rather specifically hit Obama for “changing laws without congressional approval and spying on American citizens without Constitutional authority.”

That’s not the sort of direct engagement the Republicans wanted to make.  McMorris Rodgers didn’t have much to say about the lawless unitary executive or the surveillance state.  Lee also took credit for doing what he could to stop the ObamaCare train wreck, an effort the party establishment didn’t want to discuss… which means they’re going to take the political hit for it, without reaping any of the benefits.  There is much to be gained by reminding the American people that ObamaCare’s critics were right on the money, and were willing to put some skin in the game to act on their convictions.  The media appears to have effectively frightened the party leadership away from doing that, the way Democrats will never fully back away from something like their failed post-Newtown gun-control push.  You’ll notice Obama mentioned gun control in his SOTU speech.  Some observers think it was significant that he didn’t push it very hard – the mention was almost an afterthought, a brief reminder his party still isn’t keen on that whole Second Amendment thing – but he did bring it up, rather than behaving as if it was a terrible mistake Democrats should spend the next several years flogging themselves for making.

“Six of the ten wealthiest counties in America are now suburbs of Washington, D.C.,” Lee pointed out, touching on a bit of “income inequality” that should be quite vexing to the rest of America.  The disparity between the champagne-and-caviar ruling class and struggling people of an economy with double-digit real unemployment has populist power… provided the people making that appeal don’t have to choke down their caviar and gulp some champagne before they rail against the riches of the Beltway.  It’s not hard to see why the GOP establishment might be a bit more reluctant than Lee to push that line.

They’re also keenly aware that only Democrats get to pose as Champions of the Little Guy while tooling around in chauffeured limos and throwing millionaire dance parties, just as only the Left gets to burn a zillion gallons of jet fuel en route to global warming conferences.  The Left loves the idea of presenting hypocrisy as the ultimate political sin, because it’s a sin they think only Republicans can be accused of.

Lee filled the back half of his speech with the kind of specific positive proposals he spoke of, naming plenty of new-generation Republican allies along the way.  This was also a divergence from the softer focus of the official GOP response, which was more about vision than specifics, and really more about the vision Republicans have of America than their vision of what they might do with a Senate majority in 2015.

He summed it up with a neat rebuke to President Obama’s frequent complaint about small-government conservatives wanting to abandon people in a capitalist wasteland: “Freedom doesn’t mean you’re on your own.  Freedom means we’re all in this together.”  For the people who feel left behind in Obama’s world of political connections and punitive liberalism, that’s an interesting notion to ponder.  Freedom means competition, yes, but also cooperation, which must be voluntary by definition.

Cooperation is a very different thing from holding a vote every four years to empower a dictator who will decide which majorities should get what they want, and which should be ignored.  Why should the little people fight like dogs for scraps from the Ruling Class table, in an unending political war that grows nastier as the meat on those bones grows thinner?  What’s so damn funny about peace, love, and the freedom to reach our own understandings with one another?