A return to academia probably would be best for everyone at this point.
Speculation as to whether Sen. Ben Sasse might be a prospect for University of Nebraska president began to creep across online communications and into state Capitol conversation Tuesday, suggesting the potential for a political bombshell…
Sasse was quick to praise the University of Nebraska in a statement Monday that saluted President Hank Bounds for his leadership in the wake of the announcement that Bounds would be stepping down as president…
If Sasse ultimately decided to seek the University of Nebraska presidency and if he was chosen by the Board of Regents, that would upend the political landscape in Nebraska, leading to appointment of a new U.S. senator by Gov. Pete Ricketts to complete Sasse’s term, and a wide-open contest in 2020.
He has five degrees — a B.A. from Harvard, three M.A.’s, and a Ph.D. from Yale, with a semester at Oxford thrown in for good measure. He’s a former college president, having taken the reins at Midland University at the tender age of 38 and turned the failing school around. He’s written two books, both far more sociological than political (especially in a narrow partisan sense). Listen to him in interviews and he sounds like an academic more so than a senator, particularly given his penchant for noting that America’s biggest social and labor problems can’t be solved by legislation. Question: What the hell’s he doing in the national legislature then? Philip Klein wondered late last year.
Sasse complains about the Senate all the time. Referencing his previous career as a strategy consultant for private businesses, he’s repeatedly spoken about how it is broken as an institution and can’t get anything done. In his first floor speech as a senator, he lamented that both parties weren’t actually working to fix problems. Yet what has he done as a senator to change this other than issue profound-sounding statements?…
[I]n 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 [on health-care reform]. 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.
Because Sasse is charming and brainy and because he’s a Trump critic narrowly and a critic of decay in America’s civic culture more broadly, he remained a darling of conservative anti-Trumpers for most of his term. He got elected at a moment when right-wing populism was still framing itself as a small-government “constitutionalist” movement and he stayed true to that, at least rhetorically, while the grassroots shifted towards Trumpian nationalism. But he blew up that goodwill a few weeks ago when he voted for Trump’s border emergency decree, which confirmed suspicions that Sasse talked a good game on things like separation of powers but wouldn’t go to the mat for it when it meant crossing Trump in a big spot, even when Sasse had plenty of political cover to oppose him from colleagues like Mike Lee and Mitt Romney. As a Twitter pal said a few days ago, legislatively he’s become a more likable Ted Cruz — a good thing in 2014 but not so good in 2019, when all it really means is mouthing tea-party platitudes and rubber-stamping anything Trump puts in front of you.
There’s always running for president, I suppose, which would be reason enough for him to hang around the Senate for a few more years with an eye on 2024. But with each passing week it’s harder to see who his constituency would be. Trumpers hate him for criticizing POTUS despite voting with him reliably; anti-Trumpers no longer trust him because of his border emergency vote. There’s little reason to believe right-wing populism will mutate into some civic-minded movement that would take a shine to a candidate like Sasse. The 2024 nominee is more likely to be someone who calls Democrats the source of all the country’s problems and a group that should be defeated by any means necessary.
So why not go be president of the University of Nebraska if that’s on the table? Apart from governor, it’s probably the most prestigious job in the state. Sasse has every credential you’d want for it, too. It would take him out of Washington, a place he clearly and correctly disdains, and bring him back to the heartland. He’d continue to have a platform to discuss big ideas by dint of his presidency and he’d be an obvious top-tier candidate for governor down the line if he gets the itch to return to politics. He just turned 47 a month ago; who knows but that, in 20 years’ time, right-wing politics will have changed enough to make the national environment more hospitable to a candidate like him.
He’s gotta be thinking about it. This is a guy known to wear University of Nebraska apparel during TV interviews, including as recently as nine days ago, despite the fact that he has no connection to the school.
Exit question: If the current university president had announced his retirement a month ago, would Sasse still have voted no on the border emergency? I took that vote to mean he was intent on running for reelection to the Senate (although he hasn’t announced yet) and was protecting his right flank from a primary challenge. Now that the Nebraska job has opened up, maybe he would have said “to hell with reelection” and voted with Lee and Romney.