politics

Ben Sasse Has Considered Leaving the GOP to Support the GOP

Nebraska senator Ben Sasse has a lot to smile about. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Republican senator and longtime anti-Trump grandstander Ben Sasse claimed over the weekend that he “regularly” considers leaving the GOP. Sasse first expressed the sentiment in response to a tweet on Saturday, which set up an opportunity to follow up on his point on the Sunday-morning political show circuit. On CNN’s State of the Union, the Nebraska Republican said he thinks about ditching the GOP “every morning”:

(He also called the Trump White House a “a reality-show, soap-opera presidency” on Meet the Press, further confirming his status as one of the media’s go-to “Never Trump” Republicans.)

But while Sasse continues to offer what seems like common sense criticism of the GOP’s descent into blind partisanship, he is also trying to force a “both sides” frame on the debate by insisting that the Democratic Party — which has neither embraced the wholesale destruction of democratic norms nor fallen lockstep behind a clueless wannabe authoritarian — is just as bad as the GOP:

Sasse also complained last week that legitimate feminist concerns about President Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh amounted to “hysteria,” and said that it was dangerous for political commentators to refer to Supreme Court justices as though they are “wearing red and blue jerseys.” But Supreme Court seats have been considered partisan trophies for decades, and Sasse’s consternation about the Court’s politicization is pretty rich coming from a self-proclaimed constitutionalist who cynically supported his party’s desperate (and obviously anti-democratic) block of Obama nominee Merrick Garland in 2016.

As Senator Sasse himself acknowledged during his CNN appearance on Sunday, his supposed independence is a well-worn pose at this point. And his latest rhetoric shouldn’t be taken seriously either, since he is unlikely to actually become an independent, and even if he did, the move would have little real impact beyond an embarrassing news cycle for the president. Sasse’s weekend comments should thus be viewed as maintenance of his brand and relevance rather than sincere exasperation, as you can see via this reporting on Saturday from the Washington Post:

Advisers cautioned against reading too much into Sasse’s tweet about leaving the GOP and pointed to nearly two years of similar statements in which he has identified himself as an “independent conservative who caucuses with Republicans.”


No party switch is imminent, they advised, and frankly, it’s still unclear whether he intends to run for reelection in 2020[.]

If Sasse wants to have a real impact, he could try being the extraordinarily rare anti-Trump Republican who actually acts against Trump in some measurable and meaningful way. He could vote against Trump’s agenda, for instance, or mount a serious run against the president in 2020, or back up his criticism of the GOP by doing something other than a round of interviews. There is no indication that any of those things will ever happen, however.

The proudly ultra-conservative Sasse will continue to be indistinguishable from almost every other Republican lawmaker when it comes to issues, policy, and voting for the vast majority of President Trump’s agenda — so the letter following his name is irrelevant, and his complaints about tribalism are largely academic. The real argument Sasse is trying to make, but won’t, is that the GOP would be better able to enact the strict conservative agenda he favors if it could eliminate the obviously detrimental Trump sideshow and starting taking full advantage of the party’s possession of all three branches of the government.