SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee told an audience of conservatives Wednesday that they need to follow former President Ronald Reagan's example by advancing an agenda that appeals to "forgotten Americans."
In an address at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, marking the late leader's signing of his tax cut there 33 years ago, Lee said just as in Reagan's time, conservatives must offer more than simply reducing the size of government.
The Utah Republican cited Reagan's recognition that the middle class was being "ignored, slighted and left behind" by Washington and would be most helped by a concrete agenda based on conservative principles including tax reduction.
Lee described his own ideas for reaching out to today's disaffected voters, such as offering a new tax credit for parents, providing more transportation funds directly to states, and ending the "corrupt alliance of big business and big government."
The content may be different from Reagan's agenda, Lee said during his more than half-hour speech, but the goal is the same: "reforming outdated policies to put government back to work for those forgotten Americans."
Reagan, Lee said, "knew the answer was not to get Americans to trust Washington. It was to get Washington to trust Americans." His challenge to conservatives, Republicans and Americans was "to believe in each other," Lee said.
The message Lee delivered Wednesday was similar to speeches he's given to other conservative groups over the past year, urging conservatives to help the GOP move beyond being the "party of no."
His "Answering Reagan's Challenge" speech focused more on the former president, whose Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981 was seen as helping to solidify the conservative movement that changed the Republican Party.
During the question-and-answer session following his speech, Lee described conservatives as responsible for the possibility of the GOP taking control of the Senate this fall while maintaining its majority in the House.
"Some called it the tea party, others the constitutional conservative movement. I just call it a return to Americanism," said Lee, who replaced longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 with the help of the grass-roots movement.
Those same conservatives, he said, created a hole in the Republican Party that can only be repaired by getting behind an "affirmative agenda."
"It's what Regan would have us do, and more importantly, it's what Reagan did," Lee said.
Before his speech, Lee told KSL NewsRadio's Doug Wright that he planned to bring up the same issues with Utahns during his upcoming town hall meetings throughout the state that start next Tuesday in Logan.
"This is all about Utah families," Lee said, adding it's time to focus "on the forgotten Utahn, on the hardworking moms and dads who are just trying to get ahead, who are just trying to provide a living for their families."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Lee's push for conservatives to adopt an agenda makes sense for Republicans but may not be an easy sell.
"Lee is doing something that's important here," Burbank said. "I think it's important more broadly in terms of the party. But it's not an easy thing or a thing that's going to be accomplished quickly."
But Burbank said it's "smart politics" for Lee to connect his agenda to Reagan, who is seen "as a real hero in the conservative movement. Lee certainly is trying to play into that."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Lee is making "a sincere attempt to articulate a policy agenda" for Republicans.
Karpowitz said Lee's efforts are a shift from his leadership in the fight last year against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, that led to a shutdown of the federal government.
"Sen. Lee's involvement in the government shutdown was deeply polarizing to Utah voters and nationwide," he said. "It's a shift from being the party of no to having specific policy proposals to put on the table. I think that's an important shift."
What remains to be seen, Karpowitz said, is how willing Lee will be to compromise with others in his party as well as Democrats on his ideas as Reagan did as president.
Reagan "was able to come up with a set of policy proposals that commanded majority support in national elections," Karpowitz said. "For these policy proposals to come to fruition, that's the sort of thing that will have to happen."
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