Ben Sasse, the Republican Senator of Nebraska, is not highly well-known outside small circles of political nerds. But here I will delve into the reasons why he has been hailed by many, as a GOP rising star and having a good prospect of being the future of the Republican Party.
WHO IS BEN SASSE?
The Senator has been in office since 2015, elected in the wave of president Obama’s severe unpopularity in his State of Nebraska.
The Former-academic-turned-politician has soon established himself as a prodigy in Washington and one of the conservative intellectuals. He used to be a professor at University of Texas at Austin and later on, the president of Midland College in Nebraska.
Sasse was appointed as the president of Midland College in October 2009. At age 37, he was one of the youngest chief executives in American higher education when he took office.
The school was experiencing financial and academic difficulties. Sasse has been credited with “turning it around,” instituting new policies, and “prodigious fundraising.”
When he was appointed, enrollment was at a historic low and the college was “on the verge of bankruptcy.” During his tenure as president, enrollment grew for more than 100%, an increase from 590 to 1,300 students.
Sasse has been one of the outspoken critics of the president whenever he had a disagreement with him, especially during the first two years of his administration.
Senator Ben Sasse was not immuned from Trump’s rage either. In 2016, after Sasse criticized his rhetoric, he tweeted that he can’t believe people actually voted for Senator Sasse.
Senator Sasse didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 election, and wrote in Mike Pence’s name instead.
He has also gone on record calling Trump “creepy”, a “megalomaniac strongman”, called the president’s trade policies and tariffs on steel and aluminum imports “dumb”, and has described Trump’s escalating trade war with China as “nuts”.
In Nebraska, a red state, Sasse has always had a somewhat secure seat as an incumbent Republican. But he recently got challenged in the primary for his re-election bid.
The challenger was a businessman called Matt Innis, a Trump loyalist who criticized Senator Sasse of not being sufficiently supportive of the president.
Matt Innis highlighted his opposition to Sasse as an avid Trump supporter: “I support President Trump’s re-election and my opponent will not vote for him. I support President Trump who has – and who will continue – appointing conservative judges while my opponent will not support President Trump.”
An unforeseeable event happened when Sasse’s campaign released a campaign ad describing himself as a “Conservative. Independent. Straight-Shooter” and took a jab at president Trump, and survived the primary and was awarded by an uncontested win.
Sasse crushed his opponent by 50 percent, when he got 75% percent of the vote in Nebraska GOP Senate primary election on 12th of May 2020.
It suggests that Sasse’s past criticisms of Trump didn’t destroy his popularity among other Republicans and Nebraskan voters.
An advisor of Senator Sasse told the National Journal : ““He’s going to be the same guy, he’s going to be super conservative and he’s going to tick off both MAGA* (Make America Great Again) Twitter and Resistance Twitter.”
“When national media folks weren’t paying attention, the single biggest political story in the state last summer was Ben’s decision not to join the president’s reelection committee.”
The adviser added: “That doesn’t mean he’s going to pick fights for the sake of cable news chyrons, but it means that he’s going to work with the president when they agree and he’s going to disagree when they don’t.”
Though Sasse is not the only Republican distancing himself from the president at this moment, he’s the only outspoken one among the ones up for re-election.
Newly released ads from Senator McSally of Arizona, and Senate majority leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have no mention of Donald Trump.
In a shift from their previous and pre-Coronavirus campaign strategies, they do not mention the president and only focus on their constituents.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Ben Sasse has established himself as bridge between the independents and the moderates of left and the right.
In 2019, the senator drew attention after he said he regularly considers leaving the Republican Party and being an independent.
It was not the first time we heard this line of thinking from him.
In May 2016, he posted on Facebook:
Neither political party works. They bicker like children about tiny things. … These two national political parties are enough of a mess that I believe they will come apart. … When people’s needs aren’t being met, they ultimately find other solutions.
In March 2017, he tweeted that he considers himself to be “an independent conservative who caucuses with Republicans.”
However, he should not be seen as ‘Never Trump’ Republican. He criticizes the President when he sees fit and praises President’s action aligned with his political beliefs and conservative values.
He did not vote to impeach him. He supported appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Judge; He is on board with his hawkish foreign policies, and voted for his tax cut bill in 2017.
As a Fiscal Conservative who has been consistent on his aversion to government overspending and national debt, he was one of only 4 republican senators who voted against a Senate Coronavirus bill over its proposed increase in unemployment insurance.
In a statement, Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida and Ben Sasse, said the bill could provide a “strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work” because some people could earn more by being unemployed.
“This isn’t an abstract, philosophical point — it’s an immediate, real-world problem,” they continued. “If the federal government accidentally incentivizes layoffs, we risk life-threatening shortages in sectors where doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are trying to care for the sick, and where growers and grocers, truckers and cooks are trying to get food to families’ tables.”
They added, “We must sadly oppose the fast-tracking of this bill until this text is addressed, or the Department of Labor issues regulatory guidance that no American would earn more by not working than by working.”
Their decision was unsurprisingly met with fierce backlash and criticism by the Democrats. However, some anecdotes reported from small businesses, even covered by the liberal leaning media, such as CNBC, make the case for the unpopular but maybe-prescient decision of Ben Sasse.
It’s the tale of Jamie Black-Lewis, a spa owner in Washington state, who received the wrath of her employees that had determined they would make more money by collecting unemployment benefits than their normal paychecks.
Some may argue that there was some room for improvement in the Relief Package bill but the sudden crisis and its need for swift actions, clouded the judgments.
Them: Why We Hate Each Other
In 2018, Sasse published his second book called “Them : Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal”, in which he denounced tribalism, political hacks and extreme partisans and emphasized the essence of healing America’s divisions and connecting the widened fissures.
He argues that the biggest problem in America, in loneliness. He points out to the data showing there are lots of hollowing out of community and people are feeling less and less connected. In this environment, politics is the place people are running towards, in an attempt to find grand meaning and substitute tribes and connections.
However, he notes, that’s not what politics are for. “the kind of people we have serving in politics right now have become a tribe of people who think politics are the center of life. And I think, you know, if I could give a message to American voters, don’t elect people who think politics are the most important venue in American life.”
“Politics, again, are really important, but it’s a place to do specific things to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that communities of love and persuasion and volunteerism can actually thrive and flower.”
Ben Sasse and his Twitter Chronicles
Senator Sasse seems quirky and unorthodox at times. He hasn’t logged into his personal twitter account in more than a year and his official Senator account which is probably run by his staffers, has only tweeted once in a while to highlight some legislative decisions. But before his exodus from the Twitter world, he was quite well at that game.
today’s cookie expressed a hope for me “to be trapped in an elevator” with folks who are really angry at me https://t.co/mOdOQfJIRx— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) February 6, 2019
Not only he didn’t shy away from weirdness, he used to embrace it. By posting humorous and quirky tweets, and even often times retweeting funny or critical tweets related to him. He used to defuse contention with sense of humor, sometimes at his own expense.
His self-deprecating jokes and his demeanor are a limpid contrast to the president indulging in name calling and nicknaming his opponents and projecting his deepest insecurities onto them.
(Sasse revealed Senator John McCain was per usual calling him a “stupid bastard” in this picture. Although he insists it was a term of endearment!)
Sasse also used his platform to rebuke the President from time to time, whenever he had a disagreement with him on issues.
He explained his decision to quit twitter in an interview with Business Insider in 2018 “We don’t have smartphones in our house much on Sundays. Christmas weekend I decided to take a longer-than-just-Sunday social media Sabbath. And after it had gone on four days it felt pretty great.”
“We tend to have sort of this nature-nurture theory that most of us have about development that it turns out in teenagers there’s not a hard line between nature and nurture,” he said. “Because nurture ends up affecting ongoing frontal lobe brain development.”
“I think when I return to social media, I’m gonna create a bunch of rules for myself that flow from stuff my wife and I have been thinking about for our kids,” Sasse said. “So I’ll be back, but I just haven’t decided a timeline.”
He has been noted to be the face of moderate Republicans and the future of GOP; but only after (or if president Trump) gets defeated. In some aspects he is the antithesis of Trump and Trumpism.
But the main question remains: Will Trump’s ideology and brand of politics stand the test of time or will it be gone along with him? Will Trumpism endure after Trump’s departure and change the Republican Party and its fundamental values?
Is it wishful thinking for the conservatives to suppose Ben Sasse or any other moderate intellectual Republican, will take over GOP, overturn Trumpism and restore the old conservative values, as if 4 years of Trump never happened?
One certain thing now, is that Sasse is making a gamble that Trump is not the future of the party and is distancing himself from the president. We shall see if this risk-seeking pays off.