There’s a story you’re going to hear in the coming days: that the Republican Party is made up of a majority of people who are grudgingly going along with Donald Trump, mostly out of cowardice, and a few brave souls with the integrity to stand up to Trump and serve the American people’s real interests, and not just the interests of their party.
That story isn’t wrong. But there’s something else we need to be aware of: a whole other scam, coming from the “Never Trump” forces. Today it got its manifesto, in the form of a Facebook post from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Most Americans hadn’t heard of Ben Sasse when a little over two months ago he became the first Republican senator to declare that he would not support Donald Trump even if he became the GOP nominee, and most Americans still probably haven’t heard of him. None of his Republican colleagues have joined Sasse yet, and his lonely stand is going to make him a much more prominent figure in the coming months — in fact, we shouldn’t be surprised if this period becomes the opening of his 2020 presidential campaign.
After you read all the glowing coverage of Sasse’s declaration of dissent, I’d encourage you to read the post itself. Because it’s every bit as juvenile, pandering, and phony as anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
Like so many other politicians, Sasse is keen to tell you that he isn’t really a politician; no, instead he’s just a reg’lar joe channeling the common sense of the good people of his state. So naturally, he begins his manifesto down at the Walmart, where he receives his constituents’ wisdom. Here’s one of the four conversations he relates:
**Middle-aged Republican male (more political than the other folks):
“It feels like the train-car to hell is accelerating. Why is DC more filled with weirdos and yet more powerful at the same time? How do we slow this down long enough to have a conversation about actually fixing our country?”
**Trump supporter (again, unsolicited):
“Please understand: I’m going to vote for him, but I don’t like him. And I don’t trust him – I mean, I’m not stupid. But how else can I send a signal to Washington?!”
These are certainly genuine and common sentiments among voters. But they tell us absolutely nothing about what we should do. “Actually fixing our country,” eh? Well that’s a good idea. We should get right on that. And the Trump supporter who has decided to back the racist misogynistic ignoramus, in order to “send a signal to Washington” — that’s a terrific plan. And what signal is that, precisely? I’m angry, about, you know, stuff? Thank you for your guidance, wise voter.
Now Ben Sasse isn’t an idiot — in fact, he’s an extremely smart guy. He went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. at Yale. He served in George W. Bush’s administration and was a university president at a young age. He understands how government works. But he’s playing a game here, one that says that you don’t need to actually understand anything about policy, that the “adult” response to the current political situation is a formless grunt of displeasure. That’s the worst kind of pandering, to tell people that their own ignorance and refusal to confront real choices is actually the soul of wisdom.
So Sasse goes on: “Washington isn’t fooling anyone — Neither political party works. They bicker like children about tiny things, and yet they can’t even identify the biggest issues we face. They’re like a couple arguing about what color to paint the living room, and meanwhile, their house is on fire.”
Really? The disagreements that divide Republicans and Democrats are just “tiny things”? In recent years the two parties have argued about what the tax system should look like, whether we should privatize Medicare, whether America should default on its debt, whether we should address climate change, whether gay Americans deserve the same rights as straight Americans, whether we ought to do something about the 30,000 Americans who die from gun violence, whether women ought to be able to get abortions, and a whole host of other issues. Those are “tiny things”?
But Sasse insists, “No one knows what either party is for — but almost everyone knows neither party has any solutions for our problems.” That is utter, complete, unadulterated baloney. Lots of Americans know what the parties are for. Their positions aren’t shrouded in mystery. Yes, there are many voters who don’t have a firm grasp on the differences between liberal and conservative ideology and each one’s policy implications, but that’s not because the parties have been hiding their intentions, it’s because those voters happen to unaware of them. Maybe it’s because they don’t follow the news enough, or they’re too busy with their lives to concern themselves with politics. That’s fine, but if it’s a failure it’s their own, not the parties’.
The problem isn’t that there are no solutions, it’s that there’s a fundamental disagreement about which solutions ought to be pursued. Republicans want to cut taxes for the wealthy, and Democrats want to increase taxes for the wealthy. That’s a disagreement. It doesn’t mean that nobody has any ideas about how we should change taxes for the wealthy. Democrats want to raise the minimum wage; Republicans don’t. Democrats want a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; Republicans at the moment want to deport them and build walls on our borders. Democrats want to transition to renewable energy; Republicans want to promote fossil fuels. They can’t agree not because they’re just being petty and “bickering” over “tiny things,” but because they have fundamental and often irreconcilable differences.
But surely, our tribune of the common folk Ben Sasse must have some brilliant, innovative vision that will deliver America from its stalemate, right? He does indeed. Here’s what he says we need in a presidential candidate, and what that candidate should do:
Imagine if we had a candidate:
…who hadn’t spent his/her life in politics either buying politicians or being bought
…who didn’t want to stitch together a coalition based on anger but wanted to take a whole nation forward
…who pledged to serve for only one term, as a care-taker problem-solver for this messy moment
…who knew that Washington isn’t competent to micromanage the lives of free people, but instead wanted to SERVE by focusing on 3 or 4 big national problems,
This really shouldn’t be that hard.
Let’s see what we have here. We need a candidate who hadn’t been a politician for all that long? Why, just like Ben Sasse! What a coincidence! But that tells us nothing — after all, Donald Trump, whom Sasse has pledged to oppose, has never run for office before. We need someone who wants “to take a whole nation forward.” Well guess what: that’s what every candidate wants. They just have different ideas about what it means to go forward. A one-term pledge? That’s utterly meaningless. A promise to focus “on 3 or 4 big national problems”? That would be a dereliction of duty. The presidency is extremely complex, and the president has to deal with a wide range of issues. What is Sasse’s model president going to do if, say, China invades Taiwan during his tenure, or there’s a recession, or an environmental disaster? I guess he’ll say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about that — it’s not on my original list of 3 or 4 critical problems.”
And let’s look at the four “big national problems” Sasse highlights, the only mention of anything resembling real policy issues in this manifesto. He wants a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad. Well, both parties have those. You just have to choose which one you prefer, or actually come up with a new one. Right now there are thousands of people in our government’s military and national security apparatus working on cybersecurity and terrorism. You can argue that they’re going about it in the wrong way, but if you just say we need a strategy, you’ve said nothing.
Then there’s “Honest budgeting/entitlement reform.” That means, in some combination, cutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. You may think that’s a good idea or a terrible one, but it isn’t something no one has thought of before.
Then there’s “Empowering states and local governments to improve K-12 education” and helping “lifelong learners.” Okay, how? My guess is that if you asked for particulars, Sasse would give you a line about “local control of schools,” which we already hear constantly. A lack of state and local control of schools isn’t even anywhere near the top of problems our education system faces — and if he just wants to get Washington out of the way, that won’t leave the president with all that much to do.
Finally, there’s “retiring career politicians.” I don’t disagree that the revolving door and influence-peddling are important. But Sasse is peddling a fantasy here, that if we had term limits or greater restrictions on lobbying then there would be no more disagreements in Congress and everything would run smoothly. It wouldn’t.
I have a suspicion as to why Sasse is so vague about what agenda he is advocating here. It’s because if he got more specific about it, it would become obvious that, guess what, he’s just a conservative Republican. Which is fine. But he’s pretending to be something else: a real outside-the-box thinker who, unlike those dastardly politicians in Washington, knows what to do because he goes to his local Walmart and lets his constituents complain at him for a while.
But there’s nothing honest or different about what he presents. And it’s aimed at many of the same emotions and ideas that have driven Donald Trump’s campaign forward: that feeling of being “fed up,” the sense that things aren’t working, the belief that it isn’t about the choices we make but just about getting the right guy in Washington to clean things up. Sasse may not like Trump, but he’s offering something just as simple-minded as Trump is.