The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The sad case of Ben Sasse

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) attends the fourth day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Thursday. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) undoubtedly will win reelection. That was never really in doubt. And yet, to get his candid assessment of President Trump, and an argument for why no decent American should vote for another four years of his administration, you have to be a Nebraskan listening to a telephone town hall with Sasse — or, as the Washington Examiner did, get a recording of the event.

The Post recounts the highlights:

“The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,” Sasse said.
“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor,” Sasse continued. “The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.” ...
While he came to Trump’s “partial defense,” by accusing the news media of wanting to use the public health crisis against the president, he said Trump has mishandled it from the beginning.
“But the reality is that he careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored covid. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode,” Sasse said. “He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this. And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don’t think the way he’s led through covid has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”

Gosh, it sure sounds like, in Sasse’s view, Trump is a menace to the lives of Americans, to our national security and to our democracy.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

If Sasse is honest enough to make this harsh evaluation of Trump on all those grounds, he surely must have recognized that Trump committed impeachable acts in trying to extort our ally Ukraine in a hot war with Russia to concoct dirt on his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. Nevertheless, Sasse voted with every other Republican, save Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), to acquit Trump. As House impeachment manager and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) put it, “If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history.” And so it will be for Sasse.

Sasse has remained silent when his countrymen needed candor. Sasse has not publicly come to the defense of Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, in the face of Trump’s attacks. He has not warned governors not to follow Trump’s recommendations on the pandemic, or admonished the White House for eschewing masks and social distancing, or spoken out about Trump’s conduct once the president was infected, or leveled in any meaningful way with the American people about Trump’s racism and contempt for religion. One must conclude that sheer cowardice and a yen to remain in office (requiring he avoid the wrath of the MAGA crowd) account for his reticence. As with every other silent Republican in this era, personal ambition won out over obligation to the country and the Constitution.

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I remain stunned that grown-ups run for the Senate only to become afraid of their own shadow, wasting the opportunity to make a real contribution and to show actual spine. Sasse had jobs before the Senate, including a stint as a university president. If he lost because he actually stood on principle, would his return to his pre-Senate life have been so onerous? The addiction to power, fame and attention must be so all-consuming that it prompts self-identified moralists and students of history to cower at a time when the country was desperately in need of strong, honest leadership.

Other Republicans who clearly know better — Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and John Thune (S.D.) come to mind — are also afraid to break with the “tribe.“ Their spinelessness begets more spinelessness; their refuge in childish excuses (Didn’t see the tweet!) makes it easier for their colleagues to hide behind childish excuses. Trump can rightfully be blamed for running the party into a ditch and subverting virtually any value Sasse and his fellow Republicans ever lauded. But it would not have been possible to get away with impeachable conduct, to win renomination, and to run roughshod over democratic norms and the rule of law without the silence of the Sasses, the Portmans and the Thunes.

It is their complicity by both acts of commission and omission in Trump’s racism, xenophobia, national security debacles, covid-19 disaster, authoritarianism, moral relativism and deceit that warrant a full repudiation of Republicans up and down the ticket.

In some sense, one can excuse the dimmer and loonier Republicans and the money-grubbing conservative media personalities who lack the brains and character to defy Trump. The greater tragedy is the Republicans who once had promising careers and the respect of their fellow Americans but then sold their souls simply to remain a member of the Senate and of the right-wing tribe.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The Republican revisionist history on Trump is already being written

Karen Tumulty: The best thing Senate Republicans can do to save themselves on Election Day

Jennifer Rubin: Partially true: ‘You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle.’

Alyssa Rosenberg: At Trump’s NBC town hall, reality strikes back at a reality-show president

George F. Will: The election’s winner will confront a disorderly world. Which candidate do you want in charge?

Michael Gerson: A conservative’s case for Biden