Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who is out promoting his second book in as many years, has gotten into a flame war with Sean Hannity, who he identifies as one of the purveyors of rage on the airways and who he blames for contributing to the coarsening of our national discourse. Hannity has responded as one might expect, as the front page of his website is declaring "Ben goes Berserk" and he's torching Sasse on Twitter as a "con artist and phony." Sasse, meanwhile, has challenged Hannity to a debate on neutral ground.
I come to this issue from a bit of a different angle. I think that as a senator, Sasse has amassed a generally conservative voting record. Though he has been a harsh critic of Trump, his criticisms have typically involved rhetoric, tone, or issues such as trade that are within the bounds of traditional conservative philosophy. He voted for the tax bill, to repeal Obamacare, and supported Trump for pulling out of the Iran deal. Lincoln Chafee he is not. As a Trump critical conservative myself, I can sympathize with many if not most of the positions Sasse has taken.
All of this having been said, I still can't understand one thing: Why does Sasse want to be in the U.S. Senate? No, seriously, I mean it. I'm not asking this facetiously. I really don't understand. And based on private conversations I've had with other conservatives who are otherwise inclined to admire him, I am not alone in being perplexed.
Sasse is currently on his second book tour in less than 18 months. Last year, in the "Vanishing American Adult," he wrote about how the U.S. isn't getting adolescence right, and he explored how the struggles with transitioning from childhood to adulthood is causing long-term problems for our society. His new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, looks at how the the decline of local institutions (such as churches, little leagues, and Rotary clubs) is leading to social isolation. He argues that the vacuum is being filled by people venting through politics and seeking out angry partisan media, which is driving us further apart.
To be sure, the issues that Sasse raises are all interesting and important, and I might add, in the several occasions I have spoken with Sasse, I've found him extremely thoughtful and insightful, typically putting observations about current problems with our politics and society within the broader context of history. The first time we met, before he even announced he was running for senate, he made an observation about the importance of recreation, riffing off the idea that the word literally comes from the idea of "creating again" or "renewing" and he spoke about it in a way I really hadn't thought of before.
I think Sasse would make an excellent college professor, which his Ph.D. and previous experience as a university president would qualify him for. I'd be happy to listen to a "Great Courses" lecture series on American history delivered by Sasse. It also seems that he'd be quite at home studying his various pet issues at a think tank. I just really, really, don't understand why he wants to be in the Senate.
“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.
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?
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.
"I've actually read the Obamacare bill," he declared in one campaign video. "I've worked in the healthcare sector for years and I know just how bad this bill is."
He said, "What's so sad about this healthcare debate is that the solutions here are actually relatively simple. We need to defund Obamacare, repeal it, and start over." He spoke about the need to finance state-level high risk pools, equalize the tax treatment of health insurance, and protect against catastrophic losses.
He complained, "There are so few Republicans who seem to be interested in and able to articulate an actual conservative governing vision for America."
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.
Sasse likes to complain that Washington, D.C. is out of touch with the real America, a point typically accompanied by anecdotes about the simple common sense values regularly on display in his home state of Nebraska. Again, this is a perfectly valid position. But nobody forced him to come to Washington to be a senator. He could have stayed in Nebraska, working on a farm, coaching little league, and chatting up people at his local grocery store. He could have founded a nonprofit aimed at restoring civil institutions to local communities. Yet he choose to run for Senate instead and has spent more time writing books than authoring significant pieces of legislation.
His speeches and writings may be catnip to a certain category of conservative intellectuals, but it's difficult to see what the point is of being a senator if you demonstrate no inclination to accomplish anything.
My friends at the Weekly Standard, which shares ownership with the Washington Examiner, in a glowing editorial, write, "his book is a serious one, and we hope its author will consider leading, not just our national conversation at a dangerous moment, but the country itself."
If Sasse considers running for anything, perhaps president of AEI would be more appropriate.