The tone of this year’s primary process has infected us all. The one thing almost any voter on the street will likely agree with is that everything is “broken.” The system has let us down. And the antidote must be as potent as the rage.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, has carved out a special niche in this process, making news with his staunch and principled opposition to Donald Trump. Many conservatives would no doubt agree: Sasse has made some important points. His bold contrast with the presumptive nominee, on both style and substance, is resonating with the grassroots. It is resonating so much, in fact, that many in the pundit nexus have begun to call on him to run as a third party foil to the Donald. Failing that, even the likes of George Will are ready to forgo conservative hopes for 2016 altogether and go straight to bat for Sasse in 2020.
No one can deny that his voting record since arriving in Washington has been rather exemplary, especially viewed alongside those of his Senate colleagues. It might also be fair to say that if those colleagues voted more like Sasse, we wouldn’t be dealing with the Trump phenomenon in the first place. But bringing conservatism to the Senate chamber is about more than wielding a yay or a nay when your name is called. Everyone’s vote has equal weight, but the impact of each senator varies widely and is very much determined by how — and if — he or she chooses to use their voice.
Sasse has been a wonderfully articulate critic of Washington’s culture of corruption and the status quo’s inherent resistance to change. If only naming the problem could solve it. The battle against the entrenched authority of the establishment is more often fought behind the scenes, in closed-door meetings and leadership strategy sessions, than it is in conservative media galleries and Facebook posts. A real agent of change will make the party establishment uncomfortable in its habitual surrender to progressive priorities. An agent of change will force the tough votes, get colleagues on record, and make business as usual unsustainable.
When a member of Congress is engaged in the fight this way, it becomes very clear very quickly. The establishment makes them a target and unleashes its arsenal to silence or neutralize their input. Well-funded primary challengers come out of the woodwork. Super PACs descend on their state or district. They are made to feel the friction of disobedience.
Just look at Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He fights not only on the Senate floor but by holding the line in private deliberations and vying for leverage before the stage is set and the cameras are rolling. He has paid no small price for defying the liberal established order in this manner. But he holds fast to principle, even when anonymous aides rush to reporters to leak quotes and embark on shadow campaigns attempting to undermine him. Or look at any number of members in the House Freedom Caucus who’ve faced countless primary challengers and capricious retribution for their efforts to throw sand in the gears of the federal leviathan.
At this point, it doesn’t seem that the D.C. powerbrokers are terribly concerned about Ben Sasse one way or the other.
He has engaged on some issues, but on low-risk terms, after the real parliamentary maneuvering has already been waged without him. He has criticized big government’s picking winners and losers, but has quietly expressed support for crop subsides. He has fought back against the president’s executive amnesty, but whether he will go to the plate against comprehensive amnesty efforts is thus far unknown. He opposes crony capitalism and was vocal about the need to end the Export-Import Bank, yet voted to give President Obama fast-track authority when the time came, paving the way to reauthorize Ex-Im in the process. He has rightly been praised for his succinct defense of conservative values, but has yet to demonstrate the difference between roll-call lawmaking and limited government leadership.
Conservative credentials cannot stop at the water’s edge of press releases and co-sponsorships. Real leaders must wade into the swamp to properly drain it, and this can be dirty and uncomfortable.
The difference between the many people dismayed by Trump’s rise and Ben Sasse is that the senator is in the unique position of being able to take action today to upset the Washington mentality that got us here.
Gaston Mooney is the executive editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @gastonmooney.