It’s ironic to think with Republicans holding the presidency as well as control of the House and Senate the conservative movement would still be in need of a national leader. The election of Donald Trump effectively made him the head of the Republican Party. For conservatives who accept the reality of the Trump presidency but who reject him as a conservative leader, people like Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell haven’t exactly been inspiring.
There is one person who balances the task of delivering to conservatives intellectual leadership, without making it all about himself and that is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.
Sasse has only been in office since 2015, but in the two years he’s served, he’s maintained a steady and measured voice that speaks well for conservative leadership. Sasse doesn’t rail about “the establishment” or spend the bulk of his time attacking other politicians, be it Democrats or Republicans. He understands his role as part of the legislative branch of government in acting as a check against the executive and the judiciary without seeking to undermine them.
Sasse recognizes the anger of the American people and why they looked to Donald Trump. In March 2016, in an interview on Morning Joe, he said, “The Republican Party has been vacuous for a really long time.” Sasse also recognized that a leader like Trump would ultimately be dangerous for the Republican Party because, like so many others, he recognizes Trump is not a conservative or even much of a Republican, but rather an opportunist. “The Republican party doesn’t have any identity,” Sasse says. “Trump could attack it because it was rotten. The Republican party leadership isn’t about anything big.”
Donald Trump realized Sasse might be a thorn in his side when in early in 2016, he tweeted the following about Sasse:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2016
That said, Sasse is not reflexively anti-Trump (neither are the bulk of those who made up the NeverTrump movement despite the mewling of so many) so much as he wants the President held to account when it is necessary and given support when necessary. Sasse voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch and, unless I am mistaken, voted for every one of Trump’s cabinet appointments.
At the same time, Sasse recognizes part of the problem with government is that the legislative branch is often afraid to do their job. Sasse knows this. He said the following from the floor of the Senate in December
First, we have taken an oath to defend the Constitution, and the Constitution invests the legislature with the legislative powers.
Second, the Founders’ design of checks and balances actually was and is a good idea. They were struggling to preserve the freedom of the individual and especially of the vulnerable against the powerful—against those who could afford to hire the well-connected lobbyists. The Founders were equally afraid of the unchecked consolidation of power in a king or in the passions of a mob. They understood that human nature means that those in power will almost always try to grab more power, and that base reality hasn’t changed over the last 230 years.
Third, under the system that is now emerging, the public is growing more and more frustrated. They think that most of us will be reelected no matter what, and they think that the executive agencies that daily substitute rulemaking for legislating will promulgate whatever rules they want, no matter what, and that the people have no control.
The expansion of executive power is where the conservative movement went astray. Republicans in Congress allowed it to happen under George W. Bush and were powerless to stop much of it when Barack Obama was President. It was almost pathetic in a way, watching Congressional leaders file lawsuits against the President to check his power.
Donald Trump did not promise anything different. In fact, he promised more, often saying, “I alone, will _______.” The first four months of his presidency feature a boatload of executive orders and minimal signed legislation. This is the kind of power Sasse finds to be dangerous to the Republic and is quietly standing against it.
Conservatives of Sasse’s stripe argue not for the federal government to take a more active role in our lives, imposing upon states and localities policies on which we agree. Instead, Sasse argues we need more decentralization away from Washington DC, allowing the people and government at the state and local level to tackle issues relevant to their needs. Not because it’s “anti-government” but because it makes for better government. To fully appreciate that, watch this clip of Sasse talking about state and local control:
This is not a call for Sasse to run for President in 2020, challenging Donald Trump, or even beyond. The leadership of the conservative movement doesn’t require occupying the oval office. Sasse was elected in 2014. His two-year tenure will only be 3.5 years by the time a challenge to President Trump becomes necessary. Let’s give it time. For now, Sasse provides hope for a movement that is floundering, relying on a fake conservative to advance an agenda that doesn’t fit with his core beliefs because he lacks core beliefs.
Conservatives have searched for reasoned, measured, and principled leadership for some time now. Leadership that is about ideas, constitutional governance, limited government, federalism, and understanding the importance of the separation of powers within government, particularly at the federal level.
Ben Sasse is that leader.