Good morning Austin:
If this Trump thing doesn’t work out, Ben Sasse, the 45-year-old Republican senator from Nebraska, could end up being our next president.
Or, if this Trump thing really doesn’t work out, the one after Mike Pence fills out the remainder of Trump’s term.
Or at any rate, the Republican Party nominee.
Because, in ways political and personal, Ben Sasse is the unTrump and the anti-Trump, the plausible Republican presidential candidate who can say, don’t blame me, and, if you didn’t like that, you might like this.
I first saw Sasse in January 2016 at a Ted Cruz event in Keosaqua, Iowa, population 1,006, Sasse spoke ahead of Rick Perry, who by then was campaigning for Cruz for president, and spoke ahead of Cruz.
But, while Sasse spoke warmly of Sen. Cruz, he wasn’t there as a Cruz supporter but as a Donald Trump opponent, as someone who wanted the party to nominate a candidate other than Trump.
Until that night I was scarcely aware that Ben Sasse existed and yet, here he was in the middle of nowhere at the opposite end of Iowa from his homestate of Nebraska, taking with great passion about the peril that Donald Trump posed to the Republican Party, the nation and the Constitution.
I was impressed by how natural and personal Sasse seemed in in his approach – very fresh and very young.
“Is he old enough to be in the Senate?” I asked the young woman standing next to me in the back of the hall.
“Yes,” the young woman replied. “He gets that a lot.”
It was Sasse’s daughter.
Who could have imagined that a year and change later, Cruz yesterday would be issuing a press release praising “the Trump Administration’s executive action to roll back a number of costly Obama-era climate regulations,” at a press conference that featured both President Donald Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
I saw Sasse Friday night at the Austin Club where he was the featured speaker at the Travis Country Republican Party’s very successful Reagan Gala, where he gave a speech wholly unlike anything you might hear at such a gathering.
There was no mention of Trump, but Sasse did talk about the meaning of life and love and friendship and work. And limited government.
Here are the last 16 minutes of the speech in two installments, and yes, I do drop my phone for a moment toward the end of Part 2, but recover quickly.
You can hear the full speech here.
Sasse was well-received. Austin is a safe place for Sasse ,who might not be invited to some GOP dinners for his failure to vote for Trump.
This is, after all, a sanctuary city.
And, if taking a dim view of Trump is a political sin for a Republican, Sasse was among sinners Friday night, though some of those, unlike Sasse have repented.
As I recounted in First Reading the week after the November election:
Matt Mackowiak was elected vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party Tuesday night, precisely one week since he tweeted at Donald Trump, “Go f**k yourself. You just conceded the most winnable election in 50 years against the least popular Dem nom ever.”
That was the first thunderclap in a tweetstorm Mackowiak issued when he thought Trump was going down, and dragging down with him local Republican candidates, like Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, candidates on whose behalf Mackowiak had toiled.
But, as Trump triumphed, Mackowiak deleted the tweets and subsequently, Make America Great Again hat in hand, apologized to his fellow Travis Country Republicans to win the vice chairmanship.
James Dickey, with Mackowiak’s backing, was restored to the party’s chairmanship in September, defeating Austin Republican consultant Brendan Steinhauser, after Dickey pledged his support for Trump, which Steinhauser said he could not do.
“I’m going to work my way from the bottom of the ballot on up, and I’m certainly not going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but I can’t tell you I am going to vote for Donald Trump,” Steinhauser said to some audible gasps.
But Dickey — who had a signed a letter to other Texas delegates prior to the Republican National Convention warning that if Trump won, down-ballot candidates would either have to become “full-time Trump apologists” or “risk being called disloyal” — said a party chairman has to support Trump.
In that letter, Dickey and the other Texas delegates, referred to Trump as a “failed candidate.”
“We face the real possibility of a landslide Clinton victory.”
Dickey was reclaiming the chairmanship he had lost to Robert Morrow in the March 2016 primary election.
(Wearing a jester cap that he calls his truth-telling hat, Robert Morrow is sworn in as Chairman of the Travis County Republican Party by Melissa Goodwin, Justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals, at the party’s organizational meeting June 28, 2016. Morrow was elected chairman despite not campaigning. His short and nationally famous tenure as Travis County Republican Party chairman ended two months later when he launched a write-in candidacy for president that, under state election law, disqualified him from continuing to serve as county party chairman. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Morrow was also not favorably disposed to Trump … and that has not changed.
Well, the gang was all there Friday night, including Morrow, who, sans jester hat, was looking very conventional and was meeting and greeting folks as a conventional former chairman might.
Brendan Steinhauser, who was denied the county party’s chairmanship because he held he same position on Trump as the night’s featured speaker, was there with his wife, Randan, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee.
And Dickey and Mackowiak were there presiding over the TCRP’s resurrection.
Whether you were able to join us on Friday night at our annual Travis County GOP Reagan Gala or not, we wanted to provide a quick summary of how it went.
We had over 260 guests (!) with every single seat taken, and 13 generous event sponsors. We hosted 22 elected officials. In the end, with all costs accounted for, we raised over $60,000, making this the most successful TCRP fundraising event in at least ten years.
At the Gala, we presented the first-ever Rising Star Award to Council Member Ellen Troxclair and the Volunteer of the Year award to Peggy Cravens. We presented a certificate of appreciation to outgoing TCRP Executive Director Olga Lasher, who received a standing ovation.
We presented video messages from U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith and Roger Williams. A video message sent from U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul was unable to be shown due to technical problems on our end, but you can watch the message here.
Our volunteers and silent and live auctions were masterfully organized and managed by Deputy Executive Director Tracey Carroll, with the auction bringing in well over $10,000.
Many important logistical details, including the event programs, were carefully and doggedly executed by our Executive Director Gary Teal.
Land Commissioner George P. Bush detailed the important work he is doing at the General Land Office, upholding the promises he made as a candidate.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) kept the audience’s rapt attention for over 30 minutes as he delivered a memorable and thoughtful extemporaneous address about the future of the country.
The entire TCRP leadership team is grateful for support the party received with this event and we look forward to detailing more big plans for the rest of the year!
James and Matt
Mackowiak’s Election Night tweeting at Trump seems to have done him no harm.
On the contrary.
He is an increasingly regular commentator on cable TV – he was on MSBNC yesterday talking about tax reform – and he now has a regular podcast, Mack on Politics, interviewing consistently interesting guests.
Sasse was delighted for the Austin invitation because he used to live here during a short stint teaching at the LBJ School at UT beginning in 2009, and he brought the family along to Austin.
From his LBJ School page:
Sasse is one of the very few members of the Senate not to have held previous elective office when he was elected to the Senate in 2014.
A year later, in November 2015, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball asked in the Atlantic, Can Washington’s Most Interesting Egghead Save the Senate?
Nebraska’s freshman Republican, Ben Sasse, has spent nearly a year in silence. But now he plans to start calling out his colleagues.
Almost exactly a year ago, just after the 2014 elections, The Washington Post sized up the motley crew of newly elected senators—10 Republicans and one Democrat—and tried to figure out what roles they would play once they arrived in the Capitol. Ben Sasse, a 43-year-old conservative from Nebraska with no prior political experience, was voted most likely to give the first speech and most likely to make trouble for the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
D.C. seemed to have Sasse (pronounced “sass”) pegged as a rabble-rousing smarty-pants eager to turn the place upside down. But Sasse proceeded to defy expectations: He decided to spend the first 10 months of his term listening—without giving any speeches at all on the floor of the Senate. (This approach did not please everyone: A letter published in the Lincoln Journal Star last month accused him of “simply collecting his paycheck and having an occasional meeting with other senators.”)
“I’m a historian by training,” Sasse explained, perched on a chair in his Senate office, which is nearly bare save for a few generic pictures of Nebraska. Until a few decades ago, he said, it was traditional for new senators to wait a year to speak. That that’s no longer the case, he suspects, speaks to the pathology of the modern Senate, where lawmakers deliver stale talking points for the benefit of the C-SPAN2 cameras, often with nobody else in attendance.
But once he starts speaking, Sasse doesn’t plan to stop. He has concocted an audacious plan to get his fellow senators’ attention—one he hopes could rescue the moribund upper house from its current torpor.
Sasse is, in fact, a historian by training, among other things—he may have the Senate’s most varied resume, from the five degrees (Harvard undergrad, three master’s, Yale Ph.D) to several executive-branch positions in the Bush administration (Department of Justice, Health and Human Services) to corporate consulting to academia. When he set out to run for Senate last year, he was the president of a small Lutheran school in his home state, Midland College, whose faltering enrollment and finances he successfully turned around; running with a hybrid of establishment credentials and Tea Party passion, he defeated two better-known candidates in the Republican primary and sailed to victory in the general election.
Sasse says he has approached the Senate like a company in need of a culture change. “I’ve done 26 crisis and turnaround projects in the last 21 years, so I’m used to going into places that are really broken,” he says. “You always have to walk this fine line between learning a place—by being humble and asking questions and having empathy for real humans laboring in broken institutions—and resolve, that you’re going to still steel yourself to not let human empathy cloud the fact that a broken institution is a broken institution.” In his speech today, according to a draft, he plans to say, “I believe that a cultural recovery inside the Senate is a partial prerequisite for national recovery.”
It was Trump’s ascent, however, that brought Sasse before a national audience.
From Tim Murphy in the September/October issue of Mother Jones: If the Republican Party Can Be Saved From Its Trumpocalypse, This Senator Could Be the Key. Long before his colleagues saw the light, Ben Sasse repudiated Trump and demanded a new kind of politics. But is the GOP ready for his reformation?
One evening in early May, Sen. Ben Sasse sat at his home on the banks of the Platte River just outside Fremont, Nebraska, and began writing a message “to majority America.” Donald Trump had just become the de facto Republican presidential nominee. As Sasse explained in a Facebook post that would soon go viral, two things had happened that day that he couldn’t shake. His phone had been flooded with voicemails from party leaders asking the first-term Republican to get on board with the GOP’s candidate. And he had gone shopping at Walmart.
Sasse had been critical of Trump throughout the primaries—mocking his insecurity about the size of his hands, crashing a private meeting between Glenn Beck and Fox News’ Sean Hannity to assail the latter’s Trump coverage as “bull,” and even traveling to Iowa to warn voters that Trump talked like a man who was running to be king. Trump, for his part, retorted that the 44-year-old Sasse looked like a “gym rat.” But as Sasse navigated the aisles of Walmart, his shopping trip became a rolling public forum. Shopper after shopper approached him, he wrote, with the same refrain. They were fed up with both parties; they were sick of Trump as well as Hillary Clinton; and mostly, they were tired of Washington punting on its responsibilities.
And so Sasse, putting off his kids’ bedtime bath to keep writing, proposed an alternative. What if there were someone else—a candidate running on a minimalist platform that promised to focus on three or four things, like entitlement reform and fighting terrorism: “I think there is room—an appetite—for such a candidate.”
A Trump loss would bring a moment of reckoning for Republicans, one that could put Sasse in a position of unusual influence for a first-term senator—poised, perhaps, to refocus the identity of the GOP in the way that Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich did before him. As a longtime scholar of the Protestant Reformation and a self-described “crisis turnaround guy,” he has spent his life studying what happens when major organizations become unmoored from their mission. The Republican Party may be his biggest project yet.
But any November soul-searching would require Sasse to wrestle with the factors behind his own political rise in a way that, by training his fire on Trump and limiting his messaging to dramatic manifestos and late-night tweetstorms, he has so far avoided. Sasse may have staked his future in Washington on stopping Trumpism. But Trumpism helps explain how he got there—and it will have to be grappled with before any serious political reformation can take hold. Whether Sasse and his party are prepared to do that may be the defining political question of the coming years.
Sasse casts his approach to politics, education, theology, and life in sweeping historical terms. A typical 30-minute speech covers 6,000 years, indulges in a smattering of McKinseyan jabberwocky, and cites C.S. Lewis, Thomas Friedman, and Alexis de Tocqueville. But the basic thrust is that the institutions that have steadied America’s progress over the last 200 years are no longer up to the task. Education, media, politics—they’re all in the throes of what he calls “disintermediation,” as gatekeepers are bypassed in favor of something more direct. Just as nightly news broadcasts have given way to social media, so, too, have the GOP’s power centers been short-circuited by Trump’s direct appeals to voters.
Sasse’s message is rooted in his self-branding as a “history nerd” and “crisis turnaround guy.” After spending his last year at Harvard writing an honors thesis about Martin Luther, Sasse signed on for just over a year at the Boston Consulting Group, where he worked with one of the big three airlines and a European flag carrier as they adjusted to the internet. Sasse likes to talk about the cratering effect that sites like Expedia had on traditional travel agencies, a cautionary tale of the power of disintermediation to usurp established systems: Adapt or die. But he soon left consulting to join a group known as Christians United for Reformation. The organization later merged with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Sasse would spend nearly eight years helping edit its house magazine.
After college, Sasse had set aside his Lutheranism in favor of a form of Presbyterianism. Both traditions were represented in ACE, alongside Anglicans, Baptists, and Congregationalists. They defined the word “evangelical” by its classical theological meaning: one who believes that salvation comes only through a direct relationship with God. ACE believed that modern Protestantism was a broken institution, as badly in need of a new reformation as the Church had been in the early 16th century. ACE warned against ministers who grow too fond of the center stage and dilute Christianity by pitching it as little more than a self-help program or a get-rich-quick scheme—a spiritual means to secular ends. “They think of themselves as the sort of intellectual elite of evangelicalism,” says Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
At first, Sasse stayed out of the Republican presidential primary, refusing to even discuss the race on Twitter, which he considered a “politics-free zone” for broing out about ’80s rock and making fun of serving kale on Thanksgiving (“doesnt exist in nature #frankenfood”). But in late January, as he was watching an NFL playoff game, a switch flipped. Sasse tweeted a series of questions at the Republican front-runner, saying that Trump had “rightly diagnosed much of what’s wrong in DC,” but that he had questions about how the real estate magnate would govern. Some of those questions concerned Trump’s womanizing and adultery and his history of liberal views on guns and health care. But mostly he was concerned about a candidate who seems to view the presidency as akin to being a chief executive tasked to “run” the country. Sasse once called Trump a “megalomaniac strongman”; that day he piled on, suggesting Trump was a “Nixon-style” figure who believed that America’s ills were nothing an extralegal power grab couldn’t fix.
Trump responded to Sasse’s inquiries with that jab about a “gym rat,” and the relationship went downhill from there. By the end of February, Sasse had published an open letter pledging to support someone other than Trump or Clinton. “Political parties are not families; they are not religions; they are not nations—they are often not even on the level of sports loyalties,” he wrote. “They are just tools. I was not born Republican. I chose this party, for as long as it is useful.”
No one issue or moment triggered the schism. Sasse has knocked the Muslim ban and labeled Trump’s remarks about the Mexican American judge handling his fraud case as “racism.” He vigorously supports the free-trade deals that Trump opposes. But he hasn’t made his fight about any one of those things. Rather it’s a critique of character—Trump’s crassness, ego, and misogyny—that Sasse squeezes into his general What Ails Washington framework. Worst of all, to Sasse, Trump is a big old liar who poisons the well of political discourse—just like those grandstanders in the Senate. “Our public square is plagued by habitual, brazen lying,” he wrote in July. “I do not believe this country can long survive if the public concedes in advance that people in government do not need to be consistently aiming to tell the truth.
But for all of Sasse’s pleas for seriousness and big ideas, he’s shown that he’s comfortable with elements of Trumpism. In his Senate campaign, he told voters that America was “becoming a socialist mess, like Europe,” and that Obamacare “is arguably the worst law in our history”—he even brought a poster hawking “death panels” to a Fox News interview. He laments Washington’s inability to set aside partisan sniping to get serious on entitlement reform, but he has also called Medicare a “Ponzi scheme” and warned that we’re headed toward “cradle-to-grave dependency.” Sarah Palin, perhaps the second-most-visible icon of the know-nothing conservatism that Sasse now loves to deride, campaigned with him back in 2014, even starring in a TV ad. So did Ted Cruz, the embodiment of the kind of senatorial grandstanding Sasse has subsequently called out.
From the Mother Jones piece:
A few days before the Republican National Convention, Sasse published an open letter—on Medium, of course—which he said he had begun composing while on a congressional delegation to Afghanistan over the Fourth of July, at a table “backed up against razor wire.” After reiterating that “DC should be disrupted” and using several hundred words to define theological righteousness, Sasse cast his decision not to vote for a presidential candidate in strong moral terms: “If we shrug at public dishonesty—if we normalize candidates who think that grabbing power makes it okay to say whatever they need to in the short-term—then we will be changed by it.”
Around the time he was drafting that letter, Sasse made clear he would not be attending the convention. The senator, his spokesman said, planned to instead take his children on a tour of Nebraska’s dumpster fires.
I don’t know if Sasse actually took his kids on a tour or dumpster fires.
But he has shown no compunction about dragging his children into the political fray.
This ad, from his Senate campaign, is a bit creepy, with daughters Alex and Corrie describing how their father despises Obamacare and wants to destroy it, and especially when Corrie says, We always pray for the opposing candidates … at breakfast.
But, he has found more edifying ways of exploiting his children on social media.
From the Wall Street Journal’s Kyle Peterson, a year ago:
By KYLE PETERSON
Updated April 5, 2016 10:13 p.m. ET
For the past month, Ben Sasse, the junior U.S. senator from Nebraska, has been tweeting out his “lessons from the ranch”—or, rather, his daughter’s lessons. While her peers across the country might have spent much of the past few weeks lolling about their bedrooms, staring at smartphones instead of doing homework, 14-year-old Corrie Sasse was hours from home, laboring as a farmhand in exchange for room and board.
“We just believe in work,” Mr. Sasse tells me. “In our family we try to figure out ways that our kids can work.” The freedom to do so is one benefit of home schooling, since Mr. Sasse and his wife, Melissa, clearly consider working hard an education in itself.
Corrie seems to have taken the ranch assignment in stride, texting updates to her father, who then shared them on Twitter. Production agriculture, she learned, can be a dusty, dirty, smelly business, not least during calving season, when this particular ranch expects 300 new arrivals.
Text #FromTheRanch: “Today we checked to confirm some cows were pregnant—which Megan did by jamming her hand up their rectum. Eww.”
We should confirm, for the uninitiated, that the pregnancy-check generally involves a shoulder-length disposable glove . . . but still. Mr. Sasse says that surprise, more than anything, helped his daughter overcome the ick factor: “It was just all of a sudden, the moment they were at, and she was told to do it, and that was the work that needed to be done that day.” Corrie donned the long glove too.
Text #FromTheRanch: “Am not going to call now. I need to get some sleep before checking cows—and feed the fats—at midnight. . . By the way, Dad, the ‘fats’ are cows soon to be slaughtered.”