Whoever thinks there's no such thing as a free lunch has not been to the Heritage Foundation.
After Sen. Mike Lee's speech to the conservative think tank Monday, his listeners didn't rush to the front of the room, where the Utah Republican was greeting well-wishers, but to the back to get in line for sandwiches, cookies and soft drinks provided gratis to the hungry young conservatives who sat through the hour.
Such an inducement may have been necessary to fill the room for Lee, who is not exactly an electrifying speaker. His colleague Rand Paul, R-Ky., a fellow first-term senator with tea party backing, packed a much larger auditorium at Heritage in February. But Lee is no bomb-thrower; he is amiable and cerebral and uses phrases such as "We can start ensuring policy sustainability" and "The true and proper end of political subsidiarity is social solidarity." Even Lee's former Senate colleague Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who took over as Heritage's president this month, apparently had more pressing business elsewhere.
This lack of appetite for Lee helps explain why the vision he outlined for conservatives, though worthy, is unlikely to receive serious GOP consideration. He essentially wants a return to "compassionate conservatism" but there are a few big problems: George W. Bush tarnished the notion (by giving it lip service but little else), Paul's libertarian wing is ascendant in the party, and Lee has little to propose other than vague notions of federalism.
Lee, a young man with a round face and thinning hair, diagnosed the conservatives' condition fairly well. "The left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things and conservatives are against things," he said. "A liberal proposes an idea, we explain why it won't work and we think we've won the debate."
Lee sounded much like Bush when he campaigned in 1999 against the "Leave us alone" conservatives. "Freedom doesn't mean you're on your own," the senator said. "It means we're all in this together." He even echoed Bush's "no child left behind" phrase as he argued for a "voluntary civil society that strengthens our communities, protects the vulnerable and minds the gaps to make sure no one gets left behind."
Lee criticized Bush for misapplying the philosophy, referring to "one politician's occasional conflation of 'compassion' and 'bigger government.'" He also criticized past conservatives for overusing federal power and for being intolerant ("The price of allowing conservative states to be conservative is allowing liberal states to be liberal"). His criticism of Paul's libertarian wing was particularly colorful: "This vision of America conservatives seek is not an Ayn Rand novel. It's a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie."
But as a practical matter, Lee wasn't offering anything much different from the Rand acolytes. He spoke of an end to "corporate welfare" -- an admirable goal, but his targets were the same old villains such as Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting. He employed the usual straw-man characterization of liberals: "They attack free enterprise. ... Elite progressives in Washington ... believe in community organizers, self-anointed strangers, preferably ones with Ivy League degrees." (This from a man who is the son of Ronald Reagan's solicitor general, grew up in a wealthy Virginia suburb, and went on to clerk for Samuel Alito.)
Lee's grand solution is one that conservatives have wanted for decades: the devolution of power to state and local governments. "We must make this fundamental principle of pluralistic diversity a pillar of our agenda," he said, in a typically airy phrase.
A questioner asked the senator how to "translate the things that you're saying into the benefits for the 40 percent at the bottom" rather than "protecting the 1 percent."
Lee's answer provided nothing specific. "When you take government out of the equation," he replied, "it doesn't have to be a zero sum game between this top percentage and that bottom percentage."
Another questioner asked whether the government should support the "social entrepreneurship" who Lee said are crucial to strengthening society. Again, he had no specifics. He said the government should "establish a neutral set of rules" for all. To do more, he said, would be "destructive."
A third questioner asked bluntly: "Which policies ... help promote these vibrant communities which we as conservatives want to foster?"
Lee replied: "The single most important policy ... would be federalism," which means making "as many government-related decisions at the most local level possible."
That's a philosophy, not a policy. If Lee wants conservatives to rediscover compassion, he'll have to provide something more substantial for them to chew on.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter@Milbank.