Who’s more annoyed by this, Trumpers or anti-Trumpers?
Senator Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska. He is great with our Vets, the Military, and your very important Second Amendment. Strong on Crime and the Border, Ben has my Complete and Total Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2019
One Trump fan on Twitter tried to cope with the news last night by suggesting that POTUS was using reverse psychology in endorsing a longtime critic. Reportedly he endorsed one Republican House member last year out of spite, because that congressman was from a battleground district and had tried to distance himself from Trump before the midterm elections. Trump refused to allow him that distance, punishing him instead with the rhetorical equivalent of a hug. Maybe he was doing the same thing to Sasse!
But … Sasse isn’t from a battleground. He’s from blood-red Nebraska and is facing a primary challenge. Trump’s endorsement is a godsend to him by signaling to Trumpers there that they shouldn’t give Sasse the Mark Sanford treatment in the primary. POTUS has all but singlehandedly ensured Sasse’s reelection by bestowing his blessing.
I can’t wait for them to campaign together.
Another longtime Trump critic who was facing a Sanford scenario himself next year before he quit the party couldn’t resist snickering at the news:
Sasse’s campaign team placed him in the endorsement protection program a couple years ago. https://t.co/yhYWcCtn68
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) September 11, 2019
That’s why Sasse landed the Trump endorsement. He *used to be* an outspoken Trump critic. But since the 2016 election, when he refused to support the president, he’s gone the Mike Lee route, gradually dialing back his criticism until it’s all but disappeared. He’s still more willing than most to take a shot at Trump, in fairness; it’s just that he does it sporadically now and usually in the form of low-key press releases that no one reads. His final surrender came a few months ago when he voted against a bill to stop Trump from claiming emergency authority to fund the border wall, then concocted an embarrassing excuse blaming his vote on Pelosi for not going far enough in trying to curb presidential power. Anti-Trumpers were watching that vote closely to see if Sasse would dare cross Trump in a meaningful way or if his willingness to check the president was limited to snarky tweets.
We got our answer. So did the president, who rewarded Sasse last night. Critics accused Sasse at the time of having gone native in Washington, caring more about keeping his seat than keeping his principles about doing things by the book constitutionally. In hindsight it’s hard to read his vote any other way. It’s also a reminder, though, that Trump is more strategic towards some of his critics than he’s often given credit for. He held back on promoting a primary challenger to Sasse, doubtless in the hope that keeping him dangling would buy the Nebraskan’s silence whenever he’s tempted to criticize POTUS. It worked. It reminds me a bit of the (alleged) understanding between Trump and John Kelly: Kelly keeps his mouth about Trump so long as Trump is in office and Trump in turn has nothing but polite things to say about John Kelly. That’s the art of the deal. Sasse has learned.
Those who used to admire him are letting him have it today for agreeing to that deal:
For Sasse, the past several months have represented something akin to surrender in the war for the soul of modern conservatism. More significant than his voting record is the evolution in Sasse’s tone about Trump and his increasingly long periods of silence. He’s gone to apparent pains not to be perceived as a Never Trumper or to become a face of the Republican resistance, mostly by flying below the radar and not speaking out against the president on Fox News. His once prolific personal Twitter account has been dark since May. He rarely engages with reporters seeking comment on the story of the day in the corridors of the Capitol.
During the first year of the Trump presidency, Sasse was often snarky about Trump’s apostasies. His office has released fewer such statements to the press over time, increasingly avoiding the president by name unless it’s a compliment. Last year, Sasse blasted Trump’s tariffs as “dumb.” Back home during the August recess, he was quoted by small-town papers speaking in a more cautious and measured way about the trade war. Sasse also didn’t speak out after Trump tried to bring the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, for example, nor as the president fired fellow hawk John Bolton.
It was almost exactly one year ago today that Sasse admitted he thought about leaving the Trump-era GOP every single morning. A very quiet year later, he has the official Trump endorsement. Tim Miller wonders how Sasse reckons with that:
I like Ben Sasse and it pains me to say this. But if a corrupt President who requires obsequious loyalty thinks someone in a coequal branch with oversight responsibility is doing a good job, they aren’t doing their whole job.
— Tim Miller (@Timodc) September 11, 2019
I bet he tells himself that playing ball with Trump is, in its own strange way, the best thing he can do for Conservative Principles. If he goes the Amash route and turns his back on Trump, he’ll certainly be primaried and might very well lose. Result: A Trump stooge ends up taking Sasse’s seat in the Senate and suddenly there’s even less resistance to POTUS in the chamber than there was before. With Sasse there, at least Nebraska’s vote might *conceivably* be used to check Trump in a big spot when he needs checking.
Except … that big spot already came and went in the border-wall matter and Sasse voted Trump’s way. So what’s really the difference between having him and a more forthright Trump stooge in the seat? With Sasse you at least get some half-hearted rhetorical gestures towards limited government, I suppose.
It bears remembering today that Sasse’s entire “brand” as a politician is that he doesn’t like being in the Senate. He’s a scholar at heart, a guy who writes books about social problems like loneliness which legislation can’t easily reach. He chatters endlessly in pox-on-both-their-houses fashion about gridlock and petty partisanship in the chamber. He’s not relegated to a career as a lobbyist after his Senate career either: He has attractive options in academia available to him potentially. Why would he want a second term when he hasn’t seemed to enjoy his first term, has few options (or inclination, seemingly) to move major legislation in an era when Congress is dominated by party leadership, and has to reconcile himself to post-tea-party Trumpism as a governing model as the price for keeping his seat? The answer can only be pure prestige, I think. You sacrifice whatever you need to sacrifice to keep a Senate seat, period.