It was in rancid pudding at a fast food restaurant that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) saw the end result of big government. "Because my wife Sharon was with me, I thought it would look good if I chose to go to the salad bar instead of buying a hamburger," he said in a speech at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. "I was very uninspired at my prospects for an appetizing lunch when to my great surprise and delight, at the very end of the salad bar I found chocolate pudding."
Lee, 41, went on in his speech to say that he sampled the pudding only to find that it had spoiled. He alerted one of the restaurant's staff members who simply rolled her eyes, said she wasn't "on salad" and walked away.
He doesn't think the rancid pudding was ever replaced. "I doubt it. I don't think so," he said in an interview with The Blaze. "She just sort of walked away and this was a long time ago. But I doubt it."
Lee's pudding anecdote was a call for Americans to give up on apathy and start working together. "We are all 'on salad.'" he said in the speech. "We are all on helping someone in need, on dealing with the debt, on building our communities, on upholding the Constitution, on restoring the greatness of this nation."
He called this "civil society," which sounds strikingly similar to the collective approach to problem-solving President Barack Obama often calls for. Asked how "civil society" is different, Lee said his is a call for the collective approach in reducing the size of government. "We are all 'on salad' in the sense that all of us need to be calling on government to restrain itself," he said.
Lee, a graduate of Brigham Young University's law school, was one of many to ride the small government tea party wave to the U.S. Senate in 2010. He won his seat by a landslide with 61 percent of the vote. At the time, he was the youngest-elected member of the Senate. Today, he's part of the conservative insurgent wing of the Senate, along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), though not with the same name recognition as them. Yet?
Before winning election, Lee served as General Counsel to then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) and also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Shortly after his race, Lee approached conservative publishing house Regnery Publishing, with an idea for a book.
Lee, who sits on the Armed Services Committee and the Joint Economic Committee, wanted his book to be strictly about a constitutional amendment that would require Congress to balance the federal budget. The so-called balanced budget amendment was hot at the time. Since then, it's an idea Lee still advocates (he proposed the amendment again in the latest budget proposal) and still has a solid conservative following, but has largely faded from the public conscious.
Marji Ross, publisher at Regnery, said she worked with Lee to broaden the topic for his book, which ended up being titled "The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government." It developed into a book with larger themes on the intentions of the Founding Fathers and government spending.
"One of the things we really liked from his initial proposal was the sense of history he provided to really help explain how our country went off the path of constitutional government and started on this sort of reckless spending spree," Ross told TheBlaze.
Members of the Senate get together for "Seersucker Thursday", on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2011. From right are: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
It's common for elected officials (especially ones with national ambitions) to write books about work they've done or their vision for government. Regnery frequently publishes them. It's also common for them to be relative flops, requiring the help of bulk sales by publicity companies to artificially boost sale numbers. Ross said, however, Lee's book was different from most.
"It was kind of not your politician's book," she said, "because one of the reasons that politicians' books don't sell well is that they read like a campaign speech and they're often not written to be thoughtful examinations of big ideas."
Even so, Lee's book has sold 1,500 copies since it published in July 2011, according to Nielsen BookScan. It's a very modest number, though again, not unusual for a policy book by a politician.
Ross said her first impression of Lee was that he was "very smart and very principled" and that he took his election "very seriously." But he didn't come off presumptuous. "He did not ever try to imply or suggest that he was going to be in charge of anything right away or that he was even going to be the lead spokesperson for any particular initiative like a balanced budget amendment," she said. "So I felt like he was pretty realistic to how long it would take to get something done."
Lee was one of a handful of senators to "stand with Rand," a phrase that caught on social media in early March in response to a 13-hour talking filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The point of the filibuster was to block the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director until the Obama administration clarified its guidelines on using drones to kill suspected terrorists.
The filibuster has become Paul's defining moment. For Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American, his willingness to tackle immigration reform has raised his profile. For Cruz, his aggressive vetting of since-confirmed Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel.
Lee has yet to have his moment.
"My place is in advocating for constitutionally limited government," Lee said. "The reason I ran is because I believe strongly in the system of limited government by the founding generation. I believe one of the strongest threats to liberty or prosperity is that presented by a large, ever-growing central government. I do view myself as a thought leader in that area." He demurred, "I should say I aspire to be a thought leader in that area."
It may be that Lee, married and with three children, is intentionally keeping a lower profile than his more standout colleagues. Rubio, Paul and Cruz have, to date, avoided directly answering whether they plan to run for president in 2016, thus generating more buzz for themselves. Lee is more upfront about it.
"Heavens no," he said when asked about a possible presidential run. "Absolutely not. My focus is on the Senate. I enjoy working in the Senate and this is where my focus is. I wish them and others well, should they choose to take that approach. But that's not where my concern is."
More profiles on emerging Republican leaders:
Follow Eddie Scarry on Twitter @eScarry