So, when does Ben Sasse announce that he’s not running for reelection either?
I’m trolling with that headline, inspired by today’s double-barreled shots at Trump from retirees Corker and Flake. But I’m only trolling a little.
The key difference between Sasse and his two anti-Trump colleagues is time. They’re up for reelection next year, he’s not up until 2020. That’s good news for him twice over. Maybe Trumpism or populism will run out of gas within the party by then, at least enough to allow the incumbent Sasse to prevail in a primary in Nebraska. Flake said today that he believes “the fever” will break eventually, although not in time for his primary against Kelli Ward. Could it break by 2020? Well … not break, perhaps, since Trump himself will be back on the ballot but it could cool to the point where it’s survivable for Sasse. That’s the other good news for him, that Trump is also running in 2020 and will be too busy with his own race to worry much about knocking off Republican senators. McConnell and the donors will put heavy pressure on him too not to divide the party with the stakes so high by trying to take down any incumbents. With Trump ignoring the race, Sasse stands a better chance of hanging on.
Trump’s base will be raring to punish Sasse for his criticism of the president, regardless of how often he ends up voting with Trump over the next two years. (Flake aligned with POTUS 92 percent of the time and that didn’t help him.) Steve Bannon will still be looking for scalps, if only to show off his power. Sasse will be his prime target and of course Sasse knows that. He doesn’t need to make a decision on reelection for another two years but one thing that’s interesting about him is how distinctly he gives off the sense that he’d be just fine leaving Washington behind. He’s the most conspicuously “normal”-seeming guy in the Senate. It wouldn’t surprise me if he decided to take Bannon on and run again, as Flake did not, just to force voters to choose between the Sasse vision of the party and the Trump/Bannon vision: If Republicans prefer nationalism to “the better angels of our nature,” as Flake noted today, okay, but put ’em on the record. It would surprise me less, though, if Sasse concluded “to hell with it” and followed Corker and Flake into retirement by declaring himself a one-termer earlier than expected. It’ll be no fun for him serving another term in the Senate anyway if it’s controlled by Chuck Schumer and the president is either Trump or a Democrat. If he takes reelection off the table early, he’ll be as free to speak out against Trump as Corker and Flake now are and he’ll have much more time to do it.
Speaking of Flake, Ben Shapiro makes the case that his anti-Trump pageant in the Senate today was mainly a fig leaf aimed at disguising the real reason he’s retiring. Namely, he had so alienated Republican voters on policy that he stood no chance of reelection, Trump or no Trump. He’s going out as a fake martyr because that narrative is more flattering to him:
Here is the reality: Jeff Flake was one of the most unpopular senators in the country nearly from the point of his election in 2012. In April 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “How Jeff Flake Became the Most Unpopular Senator in America.” At that point, Trump wasn’t a gleam in Steve Bannon’s eye, and Bannon wasn’t a gleam in the media’s eye. Flake began his career in the Senate as a popular hard-line Republican; he quickly shifted to the middle, embracing Gang of Eight immigration reform (many immigration reform Senators have fallen askance of the base), siding against the Obamacare defunding effort, voting repeatedly for debt ceiling increases, pushing gun control, working with President Obama to open trade with Cuba.
Eh. Those points are fair enough but (a) I doubt the average Republican voter could name any Flake heresy on policy apart from immigration and (b) I don’t agree at all that Flake’s public criticism of Trump was something he undertook to give him a pretext of leaving. Shapiro concedes that Flake’s attacks on Trump were sincere but believes Flake “purposefully exacerbated” his weakness with the base by taking on POTUS publicly to give himself an excuse to quit. I don’t think there was any political calculation to it. I disagree with Flake on amnesty but have always thought he spoke up about Trump because he felt morally obliged to do so, even to his own political detriment. Shapiro’s right that that was a kamikaze mission but I doubt the point of the mission was to build a feelgood storyline for his eventual retirement. I think he attacked Trump because he felt he had a duty to do so and trusted that the polls would eventually turn around for him. They didn’t and there was no longer any denying what that would have meant for the primary next spring. That’s why the criticism that Flake should have faced primary voters in Arizona and given them a chance to support or reject his vision for the party doesn’t add up. His polling was so bad that running again would have handed the seat to either Kelli Ward or a Democrat, neither one of whom shares his vision. His agenda stands a better chance with someone else running on it. If anyone’s willing to.
Here’s Rush Limbaugh on Corker/Flake Day (before the Flake news, though) marveling that the key difference between pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers isn’t about policy, it’s about Trump and his personal peccadilloes. Well, yes: Hence the label “Never Trumpers,” not “Never Republicans” or “Never Conservatives.” Much of Flake’s criticism in his floor speech today had to do with Trump’s personal behavior and seeming indifference to the country’s civic heritage — although he did reserve some harsh words for protectionism and immigration restrictionism. In any case, a thought worth pondering from Tim Carlson: “The people who told you the power of conservative ideas would win over the American public are saying Jeff Flake is the problem, not Trump.” Indeed. Apart from immigration, Flake is much more of a traditional conservative than Trump is. And yet the Rushes of the world, who touted Reagan-style conservatism as a foolproof winning formula for years, now say it’s Flake who needs to go. Flake’s great sin isn’t that he’s a RINO or a “moderate,” it’s that he’s emphatically not a populist. And as we learned starkly last summer, in a battle between a populist and a conservative, “conservatives” will side with the populist every time.