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Common Sense Conservatism: An Interview with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee

Used to be the Democrats called themselves the “Party of the Little Guy.” Today, I think that’s us. As the Democrats move farther and farther to the left, I think they’re scaring normal people. If their party keeps acting crazy, scaring regular people, and we don’t—if we just act on principle with a smile on our face, articulating a vision that allows Americans to thrive, while they keep pushing the latest idea from the Harvard Faculty Lounge—well, I think our vision will win out.

Bill Lee is the 50th Governor of Tennessee. Recently, Public Discourse Contributing Editor Andrew T. Walker was granted the opportunity to interview Governor Lee. Under Governor Bill Lee’s leadership, the state of Tennessee has shown that conservative governance benefits all. As a dedicated Christian statesman, Governor Lee has also been a national example for appropriately integrating the role of faith in public policy.

 

Andrew T. Walker: Governor Lee, thank so you much for your willingness to allow Public Discourse to interview you. Your administration has been on our radar for some time as one that is properly balancing a socially conservative political vision alongside a concern for justice and compassion. To begin our conversation, I’d like to ask you about the background of your governing philosophy.

You’ve been outspoken about your Christian faith as a governor. How has your Christian faith shaped and informed your understanding not only of your role as governor, but of public order more broadly? Is there an understanding of the common good that shapes your governing philosophy and public policy priorities?

Governor Bill Lee: Being governor of Tennessee is one of the greatest honors of my life. And just like being a father, a husband, a CEO, a farmer, or anything else, if I allow my identity as Governor to come before my identity in Jesus Christ, then I will have failed.

As challenging as the last couple of years have been for all of us, I’m humbled because I know I’ve already lived my worst day. The day my first wife tragically died forever changed my life. But my life is a story of how the Lord uses tragedy to transform—both myself and others. It put me on a path towards serving in ministries alongside refugees, at-risk inner-city students, men in prison, and more.

That work is humbling, and it has shown me how so many of our society’s systems and policies are broken in our fallen world. So many people’s public policy priorities are focused on short-term political wins instead of digging in to work on the long-term problems facing our state and our neighbors.

My governing philosophy is fairly simple. It is based on an idea of what the government can do well and what is better left to the faith-based communities, non-profits, and the private sector. There’s a proper role for each and a necessity to work together towards solving our biggest problems. As elected leaders, we need to realize we have a proper role to play. Often times, it should be focusing on what people want us to focus on and getting out of the way on everything else.

 

ATW: Partly as the result of President Trump and partly as the result of intellectual skirmishes, conservatism is in the middle of an internecine debate about its future. Broadly speaking, one option is a conservative movement that looks to replicate the traditional Reaganite philosophy of free markets, a strong national defense, and limited government. An alternative vision for conservatism has picked up enormous steam—one that is more populist-nationalist and open to using the direct power of the state to accomplish conservative ends.

How do you understand your own political philosophy in relationship to this spectrum?  For example, do you buy the argument from some conservatives that corporations like Amazon and Facebook should be subject to greater regulation?

BL: I don’t believe the two visions have to be in conflict.

Every modern conservative stands on the shoulders of President Reagan. Look at what he stood for: anti-communism, pro-growth economic policies, tax cuts, a belief in the fundamental strength and ability of the working men and women of America, a tough approach to crime, and skepticism of elite liberalism. We forget that he made a big part of his early reputation cracking down on rioting at Cal Berkeley.

Then President Trump came along thirty-five years later, and he was talking about many of the same things. Taking on the Chinese Communist Party, making tax cuts and creating growth, standing with the working men and women of America—the “Forgotten Man,” as he put it—against liberal elite policies, and getting tough on crime. Yes, he communicated a lot differently than Reagan—a lot differently than the way I communicate—but when you break it down, there’s a lot in common there on policy.

I believe the future of the Republican Party belongs to leaders who figure out how to fuse the two things and lead us in a direction that is unashamedly on the side of working men and women, from Appalachia to the Inner city. We’ve got to be the party for people who work for a living. The other thing is winning the long-term race with China, which is the greatest competitive challenge that I believe America has ever faced. Finally, we must unleash the creativity and innovation of the American people by getting our spending under control and creating an environment that allows job creators to thrive.

 

ATW: Your administration has focused extensively on criminal justice reform. You’ve also intentionally cast this as an issue for social conservatives to champion. Can you talk a little bit about your passion for this subject?

BL: Decades ago, I started working with a group called Men of Valor, which ministers to men in prison.

When you do that, you realize pretty quickly that 95 percent of men who are in there right now are coming out. But we don’t have a system focused on taking people who have committed a crime and reforming them so that when they come back to society, they don’t commit a crime again and create more victims. That’s just backwards to me.

Yes, we absolutely have to be tough on crime, but we have to be smart on crime too, and it’s impossible to talk about public safety without getting serious about reforming people in prison. Don’t get me wrong: some people can’t be reformed, have committed heinous crimes, and should stay there forever.

But for people who are coming out, our focus needs to be not just on punishment but on reforming them so we can make sure that this never happens again. Reform reduces recidivism, which reduces the crime rate, which reduces taxpayer cost, and is a win for everyone.

It’s just common sense.

ATW: I want to follow up on this question of criminal justice. Alongside criminal justice reform, you’ve championed adoption reform, and your administration has been aggressively pro-life (recently seeing a strong pro-life bill enacted into law). From the outside, it seems your administration is guided by a whole-life dignity ethic. Do you understand these issues as stand-alone issues, or are they tied together by a coherent dignity ethic within your administration?

BL: The first job of the government is to protect its people and their right to pursue their lives in dignity and freedom. There is no freedom when your neighborhood is terrorized by criminals, which too many American neighborhoods are today. I think it’s a tragedy that too many young men have criminal records or are in prison. But the reason that’s the case is because a large and disproportionate percentage of that population commit violent crimes. In Tennessee, we will continue to be clear-eyed about crime. We don’t want it, and we will arrest the people who commit it. Without apology. We support our police, and we will make sure they know we have their backs. We’ll make sure they have the resources and political support they need to keep our neighborhoods safe.

But the fact is, every single person—born and unborn, free citizen or criminal in prison—is created in the image of God. In the past, we have focused primarily on punishing crime. In Tennessee today, we are also prioritizing reform and a transition from jail that is supported in a way that ensures that the individual has a chance at an honest life.

The answer to our problems with crime and violent neighborhoods lies in the idea of human dignity. The dignity of a life without fear of crime and a victim’s dignity being defended, the dignity conferred by a good education, the dignity of a job, the dignity of meeting your responsibilities to your family. And the dignity of paying your dues to society and being able to start fresh.

Churchill said the way a nation treats criminals is one of the great tests of its goodness. He believed that our focus should be on reforming people so that they can return to the ranks of society and be good citizens. He was right.

 

ATW: Watching you from afar, I’d put your conservative credentials up against anyone. But your disposition is noticeably different. You seem to be less combative. In fact, you seem to embody a Happy Warrior approach at a time when niceness is often equated with weakness. Is this merely a product of your demeanor, or do you think there’s something inherent to a conservative outlook that should create certain dispositions for public engagement?

BL: I’m sure temperament is some of it. I’ve never been much of a screamer. You’ve heard the phrase, “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad about it.”

We have one of the most conservative records in America here in Tennessee—one of the strongest pro-life bills passed in this country, maybe the strongest second amendment bill, one of the first to take on Critical Race Theory, never bowed to pressure from the Left to impose mask mandates. But being a real conservative doesn’t mean that I’m angry.

I don’t think most Americans are angry. When you think about the political conversation in this country, I think what we have are a few folks on both sides who are screaming really loud and dominating the American political conversation. It’s like being at a big dinner with a few people yelling and ruining it for everyone else. I don’t think that’s what the vast majority of Americans want.

Don’t get me wrong—we as conservatives can be tough as nails and stand up for what we believe. But in the end, it’s not enough to just stand. We’ve got to actually persuade folks who aren’t on board yet. I just don’t think very many Americans are persuaded by screaming. And while other people are yelling, or trying to get themselves on TV, we’re actually getting things done in Tennessee that I’m pretty proud of.

ATW: A few years ago, then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels called for the GOP to have a so-called “truce” on social issues, for fear that social issues would detract from electoral gains from younger audiences. Do you think that’s wise, or even possible?

BL: Well, the first thing I’d say is that the youngest generation is the most pro-life generation we’ve had since 1973. I don’t think they’re really looking for a truce on the life issue, and I’m not either.

I’ve got a lot of respect for Governor Daniels. But he made that suggestion seven years ago. It’s a different world now. The cultural issues we are dealing with strike at the foundation of America: the sanctity of the individual and the protection of our most basic rights, such as the equality of every citizen, and the right to practice your faith without being cancelled. Looking back on 2020, and at the violence that took place in our cities, what you saw for the first time was a debate about the fundamental goodness of America itself.

Far too many people want to shout down anyone who doesn’t hold the same views they do.  We can’t let that happen: that’s not where most Americans are. And again, younger Americans are even more passionate about issues like protecting the sanctity of life than previous generations.

 

ATW: A memorable scatterplot from the 2016 election showed the electorate to be favorable to a more economically interventionist but socially conservative message. In 2020, the GOP made noticeable gains with working-class and minority voters. As the Governor who chairs the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, when you see data and trends like these, what’s your response? What is your message for broadening the conservative coalition?

BL: Since 2016, conservatives can see there are some big wins for us here. It’s clear that Americans mostly agree with our message.

We made big inroads with the black and Hispanic communities, who respond well to the message that we are going to be the party for people with dirt under their fingernails. We’re finally taking on China and helping people to understand that the defining issue of the next two decades is whether this is going to be an American-led twenty-first century or a Chinese one—and that China’s primary weapons are economic. We’re working toward criminal justice reform, bringing some common sense to this tough problem, putting families back together, and reforming people so they can be good citizens again. We’re roundly rejecting policies like “defund the police” that are great slogans for people living in nice neighborhoods to post on the internet, but are only going to make poor neighborhoods less safe. And finally, we’re respecting the dignity of working people and governing with a mentality that says, “My first priority is on thinking about how this impacts families who work for a living.”

There’s a lot to be optimistic about.

ATW: What gives you optimism about the future of conservatism?

BL: Well, it’s a lot of what I just said: we’ve found a policy set that clearly connects with working people. In my previous life, before I was Governor, I ran a company that trained and employed over 1,500 plumbers, welders, and electricians. Many of them were working class people without a degree, and many were Hispanic and African American.

These are people who found skills that gave them dignity and meaning. These are the forgotten men and women, who, for way too long, we’ve told, “Don’t learn a trade! You’ve gotta go to college.” Now, college is great. I went to college. But it’s not for everyone. Everyone should have the opportunity to get a good job that they can use to support a family, but not everyone needs to go to college to do that. That’s a pretty unique message today.

Used to be the Democrats called themselves the “Party of the Little Guy.” Today, I think that’s us. As the Democrats move farther and farther to the left, I think they’re scaring normal people. If their party keeps acting crazy, scaring regular people, and we don’t—if we just act on principle with a smile on our face, articulating a vision that allows Americans to thrive, while they keep pushing the latest idea from the Harvard Faculty Lounge—well, I think our vision will win out.

 

ATW: As you look to re-election, what can you look back on in your first time that brings you the greatest satisfaction? If you were elected to a second term, what would you hope to accomplish?

BL: I’ll give you a couple of examples. We passed the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act, which gave million dollar grants to high school CTE programs. Standing in a welding classroom, awarding a grant, looking in the eyes of kids who maybe for the first time felt like their educational path was valid and exceptional was a moment I’ll not forget.

We passed the Alternatives to Incarceration and Success in Reentry Act. Signing that bill alongside a former mentee of mine from prison with his children by his side was another moment I’ll remember forever.

And watching the votes cast that passed legislation that would give low-income students in a failing school a choice through an education savings account—that I will not forget.

What I look forward to in my years ahead are more opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people I serve, those who are hoping that I care more about them than politics.

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