Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), among the most social-media-savvy Republicans, and his press office keep up amusing and often self-deprecating Twitter feeds. During the debate on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he released a series of informative and well-argued videos. To start the new year, he tweeted out this:
— Senator Ben Sasse (@SenSasse) December 31, 2017
That’s an important, compelling message, but to what end? Take away the tweets, and Sasse is just another good soldier in the Trumpized GOP. For example, he has not opposed a single judicial appointment, no matter how extreme or unqualified, and has opposed only one executive branch appointment (U.S. trade representative). He has not demanded the president divest himself of his businesses, nor called for hearings on rampant conflicts of interest in the administration. He has not taken on the White House for hollowing out whole departments of the government.
When it comes to truth-telling, Sasse has not introduced legislation to protect the special counsel from scurrilous attacks from fellow Republicans, nor has he rebutted fellow Republicans’ baseless accusations against the FBI. Sasse never rebuked the Treasury’s nonsense claims denying that the tax cut would increase the debt and enrich mostly corporations and the upper class. He did not defend the Congressional Budget Office against Republicans’ attacks on its scoring of bills to repeal Obamacare. He has not been an advocate in favor of truthful rhetoric on global climate change, nor has he gone after the president’s phony claims tying immigrants to a “crime wave.” (Surely, as a former college president, Sasse knows man-made climate change is real, not a Chinese hoax.)
We don’t suggest that Sasse stop tweeting. To the contrary, what’s needed is for him to match his fine rhetoric with deeds. If he wants to show he’s more than a tribalist with a witty Twitter feed, he needs to demand hearings on President Trump’s conflicts of interest and self-dealing, start opposing blatantly unqualified nominees and rebuke the president’s politicization of the Justice Department.
There is no shortage of subjects to which Sasse could direct his truth-telling. Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes observes:
The House Republican caucus is up in arms not about L’Affaire Russe but about the special counsel’s investigation of L’Affaire Russe. The braying for Robert Mueller’s blood and for a housecleaning at the Justice Department and the FBI pervades conservative media. We have to be concerned that Trump is in the process of normalizing for an entire political movement the politicization and weaponization of law enforcement and intelligence. No, he has not yet successfully corrupted these institutions. But he has made surprising inroads in corrupting public expectations of them. That damage is hard to calculate—but it could end up being devastating.
Likewise, Sasse could take on the phony voter integrity commission, created on the false premise that there were millions of illegal votes cast. That assertion is simply false, and Sasse should say so. He then should move to deny the commission funding for what appears to many to be an effort to deter and suppress voting.
Sasse certainly has the intellectual firepower to analyze threats to our democratic institutions and norms. The question remains whether he has the will to take on an administration and his own party, both of which threaten many of those institutions and norms, at the risk of offending Trump’s loyalists. In normal times, a sage series of tweets or an insightful video might be sufficient to raise a senator’s profile and gain him kudos. We are not in normal times, however. All elected leaders — all Americans, for that matter — in the future will be judged by what they did to bolster democratic norms and institutions and how willing they were to put country above party.
At this point, Sasse will be graded no better than Republican congressional leadership. And given Sasse should and does know better than most lawmakers the risk that Trump poses, it is fair to expect more — and be more critical of what so far amounts to empty rhetoric.