Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 31, 2014

Ben Sasse, Mystery Man

sasse001 020714 445x300 Ben Sasse, Mystery Man

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

I am not at all certain who or what Ben Sasse is. I interviewed him in February, and heard him speak to a large, sympathetic group not long after that. And, of course, I’ve seen him interviewed by others. But I still don’t have a handle on what kind of senator he will be.

In that regard, at least, the Nebraska GOP Senate nominee is very different from Sen. Ted Cruz. After talking with Cruz a couple of times when he was still seeking the GOP nomination last cycle, I understood the Texan’s philosophy and his approach to politics in general and the legislative process in particular.

“Cruz is not willing to compromise even if it means being irrelevant to the legislative process,” I wrote in a July 31, 2012, Roll Call column, adding, “If elected, Cruz certainly will join the GOP’s ‘Uncompromising Caucus,’ which includes [then-South Carolina Sen. Jim] DeMint, [Utah Sen. Mike] Lee, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a handful of others, making it more difficult for his party’s leadership …”

But Sasse (pronounced “sass”) seems to have been able to be all things to all people during his Senate bid this year. That means he’s a skilled politician, but it could also mean that some Republicans will feel terribly misled after seeing him in action in the Senate.

During my various interactions with Sasse, I found him to be thoughtful, measured and analytic. More than that, he’s personable. At one event, while some anti-establishment political hopefuls droned on about the Constitution, the founding fathers and their opponents this cycle, Sasse started off with personal stories and used humor to segue into political themes.

The Nebraska Republican isn’t a big fan of government, but most Republicans aren’t these days. Unlike some, he didn’t use intentionally inflammatory language when talking about the GOP, and he clearly has the potential to become an important “ideas guy” within the party — something it needs.

But during my interview with him, Sasse seemed to try to avoid being pinned down when asked about compromise on Capitol Hill. I got the sense that he would not compromise on some issues, but believed it was not in his party’s interest to oppose every compromise. But that was only my impression.

Sasse’s background suggests a conservative who is both pragmatic and savvy. After graduating from Harvard, he worked for a number of business consulting and private equity firms. He received a doctorate in history from Yale in 2004, but told me he never planned on being an academic. That’s unusual, and a bit odd, since there is no reason to get a Ph.D. in history other than teaching at the university level.

Sasse worked in the George W. Bush administration, first in the Office of Legal Policy in the Justice Department and then as assistant secretary of Health Policy in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although he later had a tenure track position at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Sasse acknowledged he was “almost always on leave.” Eventually, he became president of a small, financially troubled college in Nebraska with which his family had deep roots.

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed to regard Sasse as an adversary because of his support from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing McConnell’s own primary opponent, many pragmatic conservatives looked at the three Nebraska GOP Senate hopefuls — Sasse, former state Treasurer Shane Osborn and community banker Sid Dinsdale — and concluded that any of the three would be a reasonable addition to the Senate. So, they stayed out of the race.

But libertarian and tea party groups didn’t see the primary that way at all. Most of the major anti-establishment groups eventually lined up behind Sasse and spent considerable resources attacking the two other candidates. For those groups, there was a huge difference between the hopefuls.

What did they know that the business community didn’t?

A day before the election, the Sasse campaign sent out an email from Cruz with a full-throated endorsement from the Texas senator, urging primary voters to support Sasse, who “has the courage and character to stand on principle” and would confront the “bosses in Washington.”

“Senator Mike Lee and I urgently need reinforcements like Ben in the Senate,” Cruz said in the email.

Was that email simply a case of using a well-known conservative to appeal to conservative primary voters?  Or will Ben Sasse join with Cruz and Lee to spend more time fighting the GOP establishment than Democrats?

The answer to the question was made muddier Tuesday morning, when, during a telephone interview with Chuck Todd on “The Daily Rundown,” Sasse stressed that he is a “team player” and said he “absolutely” is comfortable with the idea of Mitch McConnell as his party’s Senate leader.

So for me at least, Sasse remains something of a mystery.

Is he so talented that he is the kind of politician that can bridge large divides in the party, allowing different people to see very different things in him? Or did he simply mask his own views during the campaign, figuring that was the way to create a broad enough coalition to win?

Will he be another member of the Cruz and Lee wing of the party, or will he be more like retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a principled conservative who picks his fights and understands that “all or nothing” isn’t a strategy that helps his party or his country?

We will have to wait for an answer.

  • Nicholas Georgianis

    Another Koch Brother’s Lapdog along with Cruz
    Sessions Steve King McConnell Rand Rubio John
    Boehner and all of the rest of the corrupt GOP
    Tea Party. All they care is more Johnny Cash to
    line their fat pockets from the Un American Koch
    Brothers. Vote these bums out. Make them work for
    $7.25 at McDonald’s.

    • Markos_Anderson

      Make them work?

      What are you, a fascist?

  • Ryan

    I actually did not know it was supposed to be “sass”. I was saying “sah-say”. Next year, Nebraska’s Senate delegation will sound like a buddy cop movie: Fischer and Sasse.

  • YONATAN C

    SHAME OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY FOR NOT CARING ABOUT THE POOR AND UNEMPLOYED IN OUR COUNTRY. THERE ARE FAMILIES LIVING IN THEIR VEHICLES AND ON THE STREET, SINCE LAST DECEMBER WHEN THE REPUBLICAN SENATE REJECTED THE UNEMPLOYMENT EXTENSION BILL. OVER THE PAST SIX MONTHS, MORE AND MORE FAMILIES ARE FACING EVICTIONS, HOME FORECLOSURES, BANKRUPTCY, AND HOMELESSNESS, WHILE THE REPUBLICANS CONTINUE HOLDING THE BILL “HOSTAGE” IN THE SENATE. THEY HAVE USED THESE 2.6 MILLION FAMILIES FOR POLITICAL LEVERAGE TO FURTHER THEIR PARTY’S POLITICAL AGENDA. THEY ARE MORE CONCERN WITH PLEASING THE KOCH BROTHERS THAN THE 99 PERCENT OF THE REST OF US AMERICANS. THEY HAVE CLEARLY SHOWN US JUST WHERE THE COMMON MAN FITS IN THEIR POLITICAL SCHEME OF THINGS. IF YOU HAVEN’T FIGURED IT OUT YET, WE FIT AT THE VERY BOTTOM OF THEIR LIST. THE REPUBLICAN SENATE ARE A BUNCH OF SELF RIGHTEOUS, SELF PROMOTING, EGOTISTICAL, CAREER POLITICIANS, WHO DO NOT DESERVE OUR VOTE OR SUPPORT IN THE FUTURE. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU OR ME, OR YOUR FAMILY

  • Klen8888

    After working for 25 years for somebody else I decided it was time for a change, trading was the answer for me because I need to work from home. I say stop working for somebody else and make your own money .Check out the website Emini S&P Trading Secret, just Google them you should be able to find them, these guys are really doing it right and make you wonder why everybody isn’t like them.

  • Ray Smock

    My jaw dropped when I read the sentence in Stu’s piece on Ben Sasse who has a Ph.D. but doesn’t plan to teach. “That’s unusual, and a bit odd, since there is no reason to get a Ph.D. in history other than teaching at the university level.” The next time you need historical information on the House and Senate don’t call the Ph.D.s who head these historical offices, and don’t call on the hundreds of Ph.D.s who work in historical offices throughout the federal government and at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. We could use a lot more history Ph.D.s in government who bring critical thinking and historical context to issues. We could use fewer lawyers and voodoo economists and more historians. Come on Stu, look around.

    • Bill

      Yes, a bizarre judgment. The reporter must live a very sheltered existence in Washington, D.C.

  • Feuerbox

    How bizarre to claim that there is no reason to get a PhD in history other than to teach. Advanced training in the humanities or social sciences confers both skills and historical perspective that would be valuable to many professions, government among them. But Stu Rothenberg doesn’t need a PhD to get better at fact-checking: George McGovern and Woodrow Wilson both had PhDs in history.

  • Brian Martin

    I too take issue with Mr. Rothenberg’s characterization of the value and broad applicability of the history Ph.D. However, before I make that case, I will concede that overall the history profession has not done a particularly good job of “showing” and “telling” the world outside of the academy how useful historians can be. This has been changing, albeit slowly, throughout my 30-year career as an historian working as a consultant in the private sector. Of course, as my colleague Ray Smock points out, Mr. Rothenberg probably has more than a passing familiarity with some of the federal historians who have been using there Ph.D’s for the public good.

    Perhaps candidate Sasse is demonstrating the value of his professional training in history when Mr. Rothenberg notes that he is “thoughtful, measured and analytic” Mr. Rothenberg also notes the Dr. Sasse understands the significance of “story” in human discourse. I really don’t know anything about Dr. Sasse, but perhaps his study of history has given him a sense of humility regarding the complexity of human affairs that is sorely lacking in our political conversation and leadership today. From my vantage point, that may be reason enough to support him.

  • http://www.historians.org/ James Grossman

    Indeed, as my colleague Ray Smock and others have noted, it is absurd to even suggest that “there is no reason to get a Ph.D. in history other than teaching at the university level.” Approximately 25% of all recipients of the Ph.D. in history between 1998 and 2009 are currently pursuing careers other than teaching at colleges and universities.

    The American Historical Association has a new initiative to prepare all history graduate students for a wide variety of careers: http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2014/career-diversity’s-time-has-come

  • Hadris Ellsberg

    Even though the concepts of cultural evolution and biological evolution share some similarities, there are critical differences between them.

  • Henry Ko

    While finding the most suitable way to apply our skills and abilities is perhaps the toughest task in a free country, it is a responsibility inseparable from liberty.

  • DeborahT

    I’ve seen Ben Sasse during a couple of interviews & think that his tea party endorsement is just one more indicator of the evolution & maturing of the tea party movement.Tea party principles came from conservatism, not the other way around. The tea party w/all it’s accompanying sound & fury have served the very valuable function of reminding conservatives, both in & out of office what conservatives should be fighting FOR, and just as importantly, what conservatives should be fighting AGAINST.

    Considering the degree of inertia & resistance to reform that flows like water from the federal government the formation of the tea party movement was predictable. And even the cadres of elitist anti~tea party snobs who with mind~numbing regularity, wring their hands & predict the end of civilization & barbarians at the gate~ even they would undoubtedly, if injected with truth serum, thank God for giving them such a large bulls~eye to rail against.

    Tea party & conservatives are on the same page this year, tactically as well as ideologically. Running even a handful of flawed candidates, no matter how ideologically pure they may be is a luxury that those of us determined to elect enough Republicans to the Senate to put an end to Sen. Harry Reid as majority leader know we can ill afford. Nonetheless, I suspect there are alot of R’s out here who would vote 4 Bozo the Clown to accomplish that end if that’s what it takes. On the other hand, there seems to be a definite decrease, in tea party candidates who are either “non~witches” or clowns running this cycle. Sometimes it occurs to me that there are an awful lot of pundits, journalists, politicos & so~called “explanatory” journalists who seem ignorant of even minimal knowledge & understanding of American political & civics history. I think anyone wanting to come to Washington, DC these days with some historical perspective would probably be a good thing.

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