Staff Columnist

Sen. Sasse delivers conservative antidote to Trumpian rhetoric

Civility has earned Nebraska politician foes in his own party

Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) speaks during the University of Iowa's lecture series at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) speaks during the University of Iowa's lecture series at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Sen. Ben Sasse is not interested in owning the libs.

The Nebraska Republican visited the University of Iowa this past week to deliver a campus lecture focused on U.S. foreign policy. While he prides himself on being one of Washington’s most conservative policymakers, there was no hint in his remarks of the divisive partisan venom other politicians have spewed in recent years.

Sasse has been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, claiming a role as the rational diplomat of right-wing politics. However, he is by no means a moderate. He has an 85 percent score this session from the prominent conservative Heritage Foundation, ranking fifth among his 50 Republican colleagues in the Senate. He has voted with the Trump administration’s preferred position 87 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tally, well below the median for Republicans, but still quite a lot.

As Sasse puts it, occasionally rejecting Trumpism is not the same as rejecting conservatism.

“I’ve been a conservative for long before Donald Trump ever embraced any conservative positions, and I’ll be a conservative long after Donald Trump has left the White House,” Sasse told more than a hundred people gathered Thursday in the Iowa Memorial Union.

Sasse provides a refreshing rhetorical antidote to the “own the libs” faction of the conservative movement. They are right-wing keyboard warriors, bent on shaming and demeaning the opposition, not engaging or persuading them. You win an argument when you successfully “trigger a lefty” into an emotional overreaction. The mentality permeates too many corners of right-wing political discourse, often including our own president’s Twitter feed. It’s an ugly perversion of political discourse.

Sasse has repeatedly and loudly taken on fellow Republicans on contentious issues. He called the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families “harmful” and “wicked.” He cheered on Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth bringing her newborn daughter to the Senate chamber, while a few other Republicans scoffed. Sasse says the United States should consider ending arms deals with Saudi Arabia, amid increasing scrutiny over the country’s human rights abuses. And during his visit to Iowa City, he firmly rejected Trump’s attacks against the media.

Liberal detractors might rightly respond that those positions reflect only common decency, not cause to celebrate a politician. I don’t think those people are Sasse’s target audience. Unlike almost everyone else engaged in politics today, Sasse is at least as interested in calling out his ideological allies as his foes.

Sasse dedicates a chapter of his new book, “Them,” to critiquing the outrage machine of modern political commentary, embodied by Fox News host Sean Hannity. Sasse bluntly accuses Hannity of deliberately trying to make his audience angry, not informing them. In a recent CNN interview, Sasse said Hannity’s business model is “bad for America.”

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“It’s not to promote a particular conservative agenda or to encourage American patriotism or even to offer coherent arguments against liberalism. His core cause is to rage,” Sasse writes in his book.

It’s this sort of level-headedness that has earned Sasse scorn from the die-hard Trump loyalists.

Right-wing commentator Kurt Schlichter wrote a column this past week to say Sasse is part of “the sissy squad” of conservative politics. In particular, he took issue with the subtitle of Sasse’s new book, “Why we hate each other — and how to heal.”

“I don’t want to heal. I want to crush the leftist creeps who hate me,” Schlichter wrote. How’s that for civility?

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann knocked Sasse for visiting Iowa and not campaigning for any Iowa Republicans. “The most important thing to Ben Sasse is Ben Sasse,” Kaufmann wrote on Twitter.

I’m not sure if Sasse will win over liberal followers, but he is tempering dissent. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Trump supporter, visited Iowa City the same day as Sasse and drew a handful of vocal protesters. Sasse had none, and just one muffled outburst from an audience member, balanced by at least two rounds of applause. Pretty good for a Republican on one of the Midwest’s most progressive college campuses.

Sasse, who declined an interview for this column, insists he has no interest in challenging Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. However, his trips to Iowa will continue to stoke speculation. The loyal Nebraska sports fan came to his latest appearance with

some Hawkeye gear in hand, perhaps a clue about his Iowa caucus aspirations.

If Sasse does run, I think he will find more friendly audiences in Iowa — as long as he doesn’t wear his ugly red pullovers on this side of the Missouri River.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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