Nebraska senator Ben Sasse crossed the border into neighboring Iowa last week to warn fellow Republicans of the dangers of voting for Donald Trump.
Although Ben Sasse has Ivy League degrees and was the president of Midland University from 2010 to 2014, he had broad tea-party support in his 2014 Senate run from groups such as the pro–free market Club for Growth and the libertarian-leaning Freedom Works.
“I ran because the country is in constitutional crisis,” Sasse told me in an interview. “America already has a president who has run roughshod over the Constitution; we don’t need another. I’m pro-Constitution, and if that makes me anti-Trump, that’s Mr. Trump’s problem,” he told reporters in Iowa.
So Sasse began his Trump critique with a series of Twitter questions for him on where he stands on issues such as support for government-run health care in Canada and Scotland. He also threw in this zinger: “You brag abt many affairs w/ married women. Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?”
Other than calling that question “a cheap shot,” Trump ignored Sasse until the day after Thursday’s Trumpless GOP debate. He then let loose with two Twitter barrages. In the first one, he wrote: “The great State of Nebraska can do much better than @BenSasse as your Senator. Saw him on @greta — totally ineffective. Wants paid for pols.”
In the second tweet, he sneered that Sasse’s donning of Nebraska Huskers football gear while on TV made him look “more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator.”
The “gym rat” responded by saying that since he was the son of a football and wrestling coach, he viewed Trump’s taunt as “high praise.”
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What Sasse doesn’t praise is Trump’s willingness to endorse almost every shortcut he can think of that would allow a president to impose his will without constitutional authority — and if that means imitating Barack Obama’s high-handed executive orders, so be it.
Take last month in New Hampshire. Trump appeared before the New England Police Benevolent Association and pledged he would issue an executive order mandating the death penalty for anyone convicted of murdering a law-enforcement official. “It’s going to happen. Okay? We can’t let this go.” After his speech, unsurprisingly, the police union endorsed Trump for president. That the president has no power to mandate the statutory punishment for crimes (it’s the exclusive mandate of Congress) was apparently of little or no concern to Trump.
Nor was that Trump’s only foray into potential Ceasarism. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Trump if he would emulate Obama and use executive orders. “I won’t refuse it,” he replied. “I mean, he’s led the way, to be honest with you.”
When asked a similar question on CBS’s Face the Nation, Trump said: “Well, I will say this: There’s a lot of precedent based on what he’s doing.”
And given Trump’s impatience, unilateral action probably appeals to him. At a rally in December, he told the crowd, “You know the great thing about executive orders is that I don’t have to go back to Congress.”
Sasse doesn’t spare Washington for its responsibility in creating Trump.
Sasse rejects the notion that the next president should be unmoored from the campaign he mounted to get to the White House; nor should the next Oval Office executive express a desire to paper Washington with executive orders. “What makes America great is not some guy in Washington who says if I had more power, I could fix it all unilaterally,” Sasse told MSNBC on Friday. “That’s not the American tradition.”
But Sasse doesn’t spare Washington for its responsibility in creating Trump. As he declared in his first speech on the Senate floor in November:
We should look in the mirror at why so many of our people are running to demagoguing leaders. . . . Why do they find so many followers? Because they are comforting to people who are scared. They are food to a people who are starved for real leadership. . . . A people who are being misled by a political class in denial about the nature of this fight comes then quickly to desire very different, much more muscular words and utopian pledges.
He has only been in office for just over a year, but Senator Ben Sasse has already shown that he a lawmaker to keep an eye on. By any standard — and regardless of whether Trump triumphs or tanks this year — he will be on any short list of up-and-coming conservative leaders.
— John Fund is NRO’s political affairs correspondent.