Politics

Who Is This Ben Sasse Guy?

And why does anyone want him running as a third-party candidate for president?

Ben Sasse
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 3, 2016.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The hollowed-out husk of Never Trump conservatism now finds its salvation not in some unworkable alliance of Ted Cruz and John Kasich plucking off delegates, but instead in the junior senator from Nebraska. He’s something of an oddball, this Ben Sasse; he feels his feelings deeply and jots them down on Facebook while sitting by the Platte River. After much feeling of his feelings, he has arrived at the conclusion that a third candidate should join and win this presidential election. Should be a cinch.

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So what is a “Ben Sasse,” and how did he arrive at this wrong conclusion?

Sasse was elected to the Senate in 2014. In that cycle of Establishment vs. Tea Party Senate primaries, it was unclear in Nebraska which candidate, Sasse or former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, represented which side. It was such a muddle that FreedomWorks, one of the original national Tea Party organizations, switched its endorsement to Sasse after originally endorsing Osborn, prompting the resignation of one of its vice presidents. Since coming to the Senate, Sasse has amassed an arch-conservative’s voting record. He was recently the lone dissenting vote against a bill to combat opioid abuse, which he believes is a state- and local-government issue.

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Sasse’s professional background has been in governmental policy work, involving several gigs in the Bush administration, and in academia. Prior to the Senate he served as a college president and prior to the Bush administration he collected diplomas. There’s a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in the pile, along with a Ph.D. and a couple of master’s from Yale. But the most revealing degree in Sasse’s stack may be the master’s from St. John’s College in Maryland, a tiny liberal arts school where students learn how to sit by rivers and consider their feelings. Sasse is a testament to the value of such a liberal arts education.

Sasse was anointed a Never Trump leader earlier this year when he became the first senator to aver that he would never support Trump. Once Trump had wrapped up the nomination, Sasse went down by the river to write a Facebook post. The letter begins with anecdotes from his trip to Walmart earlier in the day, during which voters of various stripes told him they liked neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump. From this he concluded that a majority of the country would rather vote for a third candidate running on a platform of enhanced cybersecurity and entitlement reform. Though he claims that this candidate need not pass any ideological litmus tests, he is not immune to the temptations of partisan rhetoric.

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More importantly, what are the people at the Fremont Wal-Mart missing?

Because I don’t think they are wrong. They deserve better. They deserve a Congress that tackles the biggest policy problems facing the nation. And they deserve a president who knows that his or her job is not to “reign,” but to serve as commander-in-chief and to “faithfully execute” the laws – not to claim imperial powers to rewrite them with his pen and phone.

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“The sun is mostly set on the Platte River, and the kids need baths,” he concludes. What a ham.

Sasse’s Facebook post has led some conservatives to determine that this senator they just heard about five seconds ago should be president. (“He just seems like a swell guy,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains in the Week.)

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Sasse has insisted that he has no interest in doing so, so Never Trumpers have had to look down their Facebook feeds for the next swell guy. Bill Kristol, the ever-meddling editor of the Weekly Standard, is the self-appointed leader of these efforts, and late last week he sought to meet with Mitt Romney, who took the meeting because he really wants to be president. So far, however, Kristol has not successfully convinced him or another candidate to mount the independent bid.

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It makes sense that neither Romney nor any other Republican has personally offered to run independently as the Conservative Victory Unicorn. It would be much simpler, and cheaper, just to dispatch a courier to Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters and hand-deliver 400 electoral votes.

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An independent candidate would have to win enough states to keep either Trump or Clinton from reaching a majority in the Electoral College and then rely on the Republican-led House of Representatives to elect him or her president. A few issues here. Getting on the ballot as an independent requires collecting many signatures and doing so by, well, Monday, at least in the case of Texas. Meeting other petition deadlines would mean setting up a national infrastructure behind a candidate starting yesterday. Then there’s the hard part: winning enough states to keep Hillary Clinton beneath 270 electoral votes. Is there any state in which this independent candidate—who would be taking votes from Republicans and right-leaning independents—wouldn’t make it easier for Clinton to win? No Republican is going to even try to launch such an independent candidacy, since the only assured legacy he or she can expect is rightful blame from fellow Republicans for contributing to Clinton’s landslide.

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Sasse is getting more credit for his letter than he deserves. If he truly were such a deep thinker, he might recognize his predicament—and Kristol’s and Romney’s and anyone else mooning over a third-party dreamboat—as a glimpse into how the other half lives. For decades conservative elites have gotten their way when it comes to presidential nominees, prompting disgruntled members of the base to spout off about forming a third party. That has led to much laughter and plenty of finger-wagging from their betters about how such a move would serve no purpose besides helping to elect Democrats. The betters were correct, and this hasn’t changed even though a nationalist segment of the base has selected the nominee this time around. Having to pick the lesser of two evils when both candidates seem equally awful to you is a sucky situation. It may require the feeling of many feelings and an afternoon or two down by the river. But you do it anyway.

Read more Slate coverage of the Republican primary.

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