I have little to add to this Philip Klein piece from a few days ago. I offer it to you because I know the question he asks has occurred to you before, just as it’s occurred to everyone who’s heard Sasse discuss his job over the past few years. Why does this guy hold the job he does? Until recently, when Sasse pushed an ethics-reform package, he hadn’t made any bright legislative marks. He clearly disdains what the Senate has become, for understandable reasons. His contempt for what his party has become has driven him to the point of flirting with independence — again, understandably.
But whether you love him or hate him, given his attitude, you’re left to wonder what would have possessed him to seek office in the first place.
Sasse asks himself that too, I’d bet — often. I’ve thought for at least a year that he won’t run for reelection. Maybe he’ll be coaxed into primarying Trump for token reasons, to offer a different vision for the party on principle despite the certainty of defeat. But I’d be surprised if he ever ran for office again intending to win. How could he, having made an enemy of the man who owns the party? Sasse’s job approval back home isn’t bad at 43/34 but that’s because Trump hasn’t laid a glove on him yet. Barring a highly unlikely Cruz-ish reconciliation between the two, there will be a primary challenger in Nebraska in 2020. And that challenger will remind Trump’s fans of what Sasse thinks of their hero in exquisite detail.
He’ll be happier elsewhere. Klein:
“We can’t fix this with new legislation,” Sasse writes in his new book. “We don’t need a new program, a new department, one more election.” This is a point I’ve heard him make many times over the years both in print and in person, and it’s a perfectly fine point. But, uh, isn’t the whole point of being in the Senate to be part of a legislative body that passes stuff? I mean, I’m not kidding, I just don’t get why he wants to be in the Senate…
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he ran for office in 2014, he talked about how his previous experience as assistant secretary at the the department of Health and Human Services and his consulting career made him uniquely qualified to promote free market alternatives to Obamacare. One of his favorite boasts was that he actually read the entire law…
Yet in 2017, Republicans had control of both chambers of Congress and a president in office who was willing to sign off on basically anything that could be passed. As the Senate struggled to find a solution, they desperately could have used the help of somebody like Sasse, who is bright and specifically knowledgeable about healthcare policy, and who is not known as being a bomb thrower. Yet he was virtually invisible throughout the debate. Other conservatives with less background in healthcare, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee tried, and so did many others of various ideological stripes – both publicly and behind the scenes. Yet Sasse completely sat it out, for some inexplicable reason that he’s never adequately addressed, while finding ample time to promote his book. If he wasn’t going to lead on an issue that was such a central part of his campaign, I really can’t comprehend why he wants to be in the Senate.
He’s not a RINO, Klein correctly notes. He votes conservatively and usually votes with Trump. But his interest as a senator thus far has lain more with diagnosing “meta-problems” of government than with solving social problems. (He’s interested in solving social problems too but for his thoughts on those you’ve got to read his books.) His floor speeches usually have to do with Senate dysfunction, hyperpartisanship, how the Trumpist disdain for civics is destined to lead to unforeseen bad outcomes, or some overlap among the three. You could make the case that those meta-problems are actually more urgent than most social problems since the latter won’t be addressed effectively by government until the former are.
But his colleagues aren’t going to be hectored into behaving better and he knows it. The sense I get from his floor speeches is that he thinks all efforts at effective legislation are destined to be futile and simply wants his objections noted for posterity. Fine, in that case, but we’re right back to Klein’s question. If he doesn’t want to try to break the logjam by proposing legislation (or thinks it’s pointless to try) and he’s unwilling to cross the aisle on big votes to earn some goodwill from Democrats that might be leveraged for his own policy priorities later, then what’s he doing there?
If you asked Sasse why he ran in 2014 I think he’d say it’s because he’s interested in solving significant social problems — just see his new book for the evidence — that he sought policymaking power. If you want to make life better for Americans, nothing short of the presidency will give you as much opportunity as a seat in the Senate. But how to explain his silence during the ObamaCare repeal saga then? Maybe he thought circa 2014 that he’d eventually be working with a more like-minded Republican president, like a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, offering more opportunity for creative conservative legislation. But (a) even if that had come to pass, Schumer would still have the filibuster, and (b) a more ideological Republican president might have been less inclined to yield influence over policy to the Senate than Trump is. Everyone’s illusions about government are shattered to some degree upon arriving in Washington but it’s as if Sasse’s illusions were shattered on day one and he’s decided to spend the rest of his six years explaining at length just how shattered they are. Pull it together, buddy.
I’m looking forward to reading his book, though, which sounds compelling — probably the first and last time I’ll ever say that about a book written about a politician. (He gets into the nuts and bolts a bit below.) But then that’s what makes Sasse’s strange standoffishness towards his job so maddening. He’s a brainy guy thinking seriously about the country’s challenges and seems authentically down to earth. We’d benefit from more of him in government. But his attitude seems to be that it’s pointless for people like him to be there. How do you solve that meta-problem?