The congressional Republicans continue to abet and excuse Donald Trump’s relentless assaults on democratic norms and the rule of law. We long ago abandoned any hope that they would defend America by holding Trump accountable, by performing the checks and balances crafted by the Founders whom they profess to revere. But if we were to focus on one particular guy who best embodies that spinelessness, someone who is a veritable metaphor for a party in moral eclipse, I strongly nominate Ben Sasse.
The junior Republican senator from Nebraska has been furrowing his brow about Trump ever since the 2016 campaign, tut-tutting in high-minded language about how the paranoid narcissist is a clear and present danger. But rarely in modern times has such eloquent rhetoric been twinned with such hapless inertia. He talks like a sane person — about how Trump is “trying to weaponize distrust” of the free press; about how Trump “negotiated from a position of weakness” with Vladimir Putin and about how Helsinki was “a disaster;” about how Trump’s tweets are “beneath the dignity of the office” — but whenever the chips are down, he enables the insanity by doing nothing.
After everything that’s happened over the past week, I can’t listen to Sasse anymore.
When an anonymous senior Trump administration staffer wrote in The New York Times that aides are working overtime to protect America from an amoral loon, an unprecedented cry for help from inside the people’s house, Sasse confirmed the substance of the piece. He said it was “similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.” Well, that’s nice to know. The so-called commander-in-chief is mentally unhinged and policy-ignorant, and Sasse and his colleagues learn this anew “three times a week.”
When Sasse surfaced Sunday on “Meet the Press,” he continued his lament: “The president was elected in 2016 because he wanted to disrupt everything … The question is, disruption to what end? … It’s pretty clear that this White House is a reality show-soap opera presidency … Right now, it just feels like there’s way too much drama every day.”
But what is he prepared to do about it? Nothing, except to pine for a Trump regime that will never be: “What you’d like is… a policy process where a president can in a dispassionate way deliberate about lots of information and lots of advice and wisdom and counsel and then make a long-term decision.” Trump needs to focus on “long-term vision-casting for America … 10 years in the future, not 10 hours in the future.”
Right. All that will happen on the same day that unicorns cavort on the South Lawn.
And when Brett Kavanaugh was grilled last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee — and it became obvious that he has lied under oath about his past use of hacked Democratic emails, and that he won’t recuse himself from cases involving Trump, despite his past belief that Richard Nixon shouldn’t have been compelled to release his Watergate tapes – did committee member Ben Sasse voice a desire to stop Kavanaugh’s ascent? Nope. He’ll vote yes, along with the rest of the Senate GOP. His big contribution to the hearings was an unprofound assessment on day one about how the confirmation process has become “an election battle for TV.”
Sasse, a Yale history PhD and former small-university president (nice creds!), constantly depicts himself as a free-thinking soul who claims not to care whether he gets re-elected in 2020 (he said last Wednesday, “I’m not really that interested in incumbency”). And he likes to fret publicly about how Trump has ruined the Republican brand (he said in July, “I think my party is in a bad way”). But if that’s how he feels, and if he’s truly indifferent about re-election in a state that Trump carried by 25 percentage points (assuming he even runs again), why not put his words into action?
The GOP barely holds the Senate, 51-49. The chamber could be tied in knots if only Sasse joined forces with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. Like Sasse, Flake and Corker talk big about Trump and do nothing. And they have less of an excuse, because they’re 2018 lame ducks who will be gone in January. Three renegade Republican senators, backing their words with action, could arguably hold up Kavanaugh’s nomination — or halt other Trump priorities — unless the Senate leadership first agrees to move the bill, currently in limbo, that protects Robert Mueller from being fired; or move the bill, currently in limbo, that curbs Trump’s ability to unilaterally start a war; or move a bill, currently in limbo, that would better protect our elections from foreign cyberattacks.
But Sasse’s refusal to use senatorial leverage renders his words hollow. History will be harsh on those who saw danger and shrank from confronting it. Trump is counting on all Republicans to remain gutless. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill warned in an 1867 address, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”