Give Ben Sasse a break
Left and right alike are hurling unfair attacks on a morally serious leader
In 2014, I spent the better part of a week traveling with Ben Sasse on his campaign bus—it was actually an RV the campaign had dubbed the “Benebago”—when he first ran for the Senate from Nebraska. If you’ve ever driven through western Nebraska, you know we had ample time to sit around and talk.
During one of many conversations, Sasse confessed to me that he had some reservations about being a senator. Before coming to the Senate, Sasse had, among other jobs, been the president of a small liberal arts college and an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. His skillset was managing organizations, and his concern was that the Senate was such a broken institution that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish much.
Suffice to say, Sasse’s concerns were valid. After serving eight years in an incredibly polarized congress, Sasse recently stunned observers and announced that he was leaving the Senate to accept a job as president of the University of Florida. Even more stunning was that the announcement was accompanied by a number of vicious and petty attacks on Sasse and his character—with everyone from Washington Post columnists to liberal academics piling on.
Sasse had tried to navigate choppy waters in the Senate; his fierce sense of morality and decency had put him at odds with the leader of his party, President Donald Trump. Sasse eventually voted to impeach Trump over his conduct on January 6. Frustrated GOP voters who supported Trump’s pugilistic attempts to “drain the swamp,” as well as Trump himself, were upset at the vote to impeach by a GOP ally.
Trump opponents opportunistically applauded Sasse’s integrity, but in the end hated him anyway. Unlike many Trump critics on the right, Sasse never saw abandoning his conservative principles as a necessary part of standing up to Trump.
Following the announcement Sasse was leaving the Senate, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who thought of herself as conservative once upon a time, derided Sasse as a “slippery, right-wing politician” who is not “up to the intellectual rigor of a major university.” Given the state of American higher education, Rubin’s invocation of the “intellectual rigor of a major university” is enough to produce fits of laughter.
Regardless, Sasse is a Yale Ph.D. (who earned his earlier degrees at Oxford and Harvard) who has previously been a college president. It’s obvious he’s up to the task. Less certain is whether Rubin is so out to lunch she even remembers all the slavish praise she used to heap on Sasse, whom she called “brilliant” and “the best of the GOP.”
But Rubin’s reaction to Sasse was just par for the course for much of the Never Trump right. Former Republicans Tim Miller and Amanda Carpenter of The Bulwark—an alarmingly obsessive publication where opposition to Trump is distilled into regularly attacking GOP voters with the same spiteful ad hominem they claim to oppose—attacked Sasse for not being anti-Trump enough. Opposing Trump effectively ended Sasse’s promising political career—he was once regularly bandied about as a future presidential candidate—but for this crowd, you’re not a true conservative unless you vote for Democrats. They really mean that, they say.
And then there’s the de rigueur attacks Sasse is facing from the Left. See if you can follow the logic of this CNN op-ed from a university professor: Apparently, Sasse’s appointment is troubling because universities might “become politicized.” According to this attack, Florida’s hiring process “privileges white guys” and white guys like Sasse “defile the ideals of a public university as an agent of equity.” The fact Sasse would take a job that aligns him with Florida’s popular governor Ron DeSantis is supposed to be proof he lacks integrity. Last but not least, Sasse’s public statements in opposition to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision are claimed as evidence he might be a “homophobe.”
It’s all so predictable and tiresome. The common thread to all the criticism launched at Sasse is, despite citing his own conscience as a reason to take on the president of the United States and leader of his political party over moral disagreements, Sasse will never, ever be accepted so long as he remains a Christian and a conservative. That is the real issue.
Of course, Sasse would likely tell you that in retrospect some of his decisions weren’t perfect, and I for one disagreed with the strategy and substance of some of his criticisms of Trump. But one can disagree with particular decisions and still accept that he was more morally serious and responsible than many of his political peers.
In the end, the attacks on Sasse betray a latent intolerance that ought to alarm us all. As the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl observed, “If even Ben Sasse is considered unacceptably right-wing, partisan, or MAGA to be allowed for public positions, then they are giving away the game that nothing less than a one-party state is acceptable.”
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