Ben Sasse is the man of the hour. On this first-term Republican senator from Nebraska lie the hopes of conservatives opposed to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Sasse got their hopes up by being one of the first elected Republicans to say, in effect, “Never Trump.” “My current answer for who I would support in a hypothetical matchup between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton is: Neither of them,” Sasse wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post. “I sincerely hope we select one of the other GOP candidates, but if Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option.”
Moreover, Sasse made his case against Trump in a way that conservatives could love: He’s too much like Barack Obama and not enough like the Founding Fathers. “Much like President Obama,” he wrote of Trump, “he displays essentially no understanding of the fact that, in the American system, we have a constitutional system of checks and balances, with three separate but co-equal branches of government.”
That was before Trump beat the last of his Republican primary opponents. Since then, Sasse has penned an open letter to “Majority America” while sitting by the Platte River and derided Trump on Twitter. “If you’re one of the few who genuinely believe H. Clinton and D. Trump are honorable leaders, this isn’t for you,” he wrote. “With Clinton and Trump, the fix is in. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger.”
Demoralized anti-Trump conservatives were ecstatic, but a prophet is without honor in his hometown. Sasse was rebuked by the Nebraska state GOP convention for his third-party advocacy less than a week after Trump won the state’s primary with 61 percent of the vote. The resolution was spearheaded by the nephew of Deb Fischer, the state’s other Republican senator.
Senator Fischer claims to not have had anything to do with the resolution, but speaking to Nebraska Republicans, she sounded a very different note than Sasse. “I appreciate some are disappointed in how things have shaken out, but the people have spoken, and I respect their decision,” she said. “In our system of government it is the people, not the elites in Washington, not the pollsters or opinion-page writers, but rather the people who decide.”
Sasse responded by lamenting a “dying” Republican Party. “The party that I’m a part of is largely suffering from a declining customer base, because root, sort of core Republican voters are dying,” he said.
What Sasse is selling these customers is the kind of conservatism that defined the Tea Party before Trump demonstrated that, for many of these voters, attitude beats ideology or policy. It’s obvious why some see Sasse as an appealing salesman: unquestionably bright (a former college president, even), a family man with floppy hair who talks about Nebraska values and the Constitution.
But Sasse served in George W. Bush’s administration and still sounds like him on foreign policy. “This is a clash of civilizations—a fight between free people and a totalitarian movement,” he said on the Senate floor in December of last year, later adding, “We are free and our enemies hate it. They hate that my wife leaves our home. They hate that my daughters know how to read.”
Stop talking about Muslim immigration like Trump, he continued. “Start telling us what your actual plan is to have a Middle Eastern map that isn’t generating more failed states that become terrorist training camps.”
Then there was Sasse’s 2009 op-ed praising Bush’s deficit-funded Medicare Part D prescription-drug program, an aspect of the 43rd president’s legacy many conservatives are willing to criticize. Sasse wrote that those critics were wrong—along with liberal Part D detractors—and that the program was “enormously successful” and the “answer to health reform.”
In fairness, Sasse was mainly defending Part D’s competitive bidding process, which is popular even among Republicans who voted against the program. But it raised eyebrows—and concerns that Tea Party groups backed him only because they wanted to rack up an easy win in a year where they had few.
Then came a memo from his campaign after his 2014 election saying, “Conservatives will be thrilled with Ben Sasse as a U.S. senator if they are looking for a leader who will propose and fight for conservative solutions from a constitutional perspective, but they shouldn’t expect him to adopt an instinctual reaction of ‘no’; nor should they expect that he will go out of his way to annoy establishment GOP leaders.”
In that sense, Sasse may really be the opposite of Trump: someone drawn to talk about the interventionist “global freedom agenda” and Paul Ryan-style policy wonkery without embodying the confrontational Tea Party temperament. To many Republicans who voted for Trump, however, going out of one’s way to annoy establishment GOP leaders is the whole point.
Anti-Trump movement conservatives would like to see Sasse go beyond social media posts and actually become the third 2016 option he and they desire. That, so far, he has been unwilling to do, often citing his young family—even though he is one of the top names linked to an effort by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney to recruit a third-party conservative candidate.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that Sasse didn’t want to talk about Trump at the Nebraska GOP gathering, preferring to discuss the Constitution and tell stories about his daughter working on a ranch. The same was true at an April conservative dinner.
Perhaps Sasse is putting family first, but he is clearly ambitious. He suffers the same dilemma as the rest of the conservative third-party project. If he runs and doesn’t do particularly well, as better-known third-party candidates than him have done, he will look small. If he helps flip the election to Hillary Clinton, in four years the averted dangers of a Trump administration will be forgotten and Clinton’s sins—and the Ralph Naders of the Right who enabled them—will be on conservatives’ minds.
Neither is a good place for a young man in a hurry to be.
Sasse’s post-election campaign memo implied that as a senator, the Nebraska Republican would be less Ted Cruz (who already ran for president this year) than Tom Coburn (who may be the next #NeverTrump target if Sasse holds firm to his plans not to run).
Coburn was a rare recent Republican lawmaker who was both right-wing and widely respected outside GOP circles. Will Sasse make him come out of retirement this fall?
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.