Over the weekend, Mitt Romney showcased two of the party’s brightest national prospects, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, at his annual Experts and Enthusiasts summit in Deer Valley, Utah. The pair sat on stage before a crowd of about 300 attendees, the vast majority of them depressed and disconsolate about the rise of Donald Trump, for a discussion moderated by former Romney adviser Dan Senor. Their appearance was intended not only to highlight them as future leaders of the GOP, but to convey the message that the party has a bright future beyond Trump.
“If there is ever hope for the future of our nation it rests with Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse,” says David Parker, an investment banker and Romney friend who attended the weekend’s conference. “These guys are young, brilliant, extremely articulate.”
If only it were that simple. For Romney, the choice of Cotton and Sasse was an interesting one: As some of the earliest shadowboxing for the party’s 2020 nomination kicks off, the two rising stars have staked out essentially opposing positions with respect to Trump. Cotton believes the billionaire developer represents a populism the GOP should and must incorporate, while Sasse sees him as a grave, existential threat to the future of conservatism.
Two years ago, the New York Times noted the obvious similarities between the two men: Both are Harvard graduates from relatively humble backgrounds, and both worked as management consultants — Cotton at McKinsey, Sasse at BCG and then at McKinsey — before running for office. Both were elected to the Senate in 2014, Cotton at the age of 37, Sasse at the age of 42.
But they’ve parted ways on Trump, and the divide has already had political consequences for each of them. If Sasse has become the poster boy for the anti-Trumpers, Cotton was, until recently, himself something of a hero to the small but influential group of conservative intellectuals — journalists, donors, and political operatives — driving opposition to the presumptive GOP nominee. The Weekly Standard said of Cotton in a 2011 article, at the outset of his run for Congress, that there is “an ease about his manner that masks his intellectual prowess and the courage that marked his service.” The magazine’s editor, Bill Kristol, compared him favorably to Bill Clinton. In the House, Cotton led the fight against the Gang of Eight bill and cast a vote against the farm bill, an act virtually unheard of for an Arkansan. He made national headlines in his first days as a U.S. senator when he penned an open letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to scuttle the Iran deal.
And then he chose to stay silent on Trump.
It wasn’t for want of entreaties from Trump’s primary opponents. The Rubio campaign pleaded with him for an endorsement, but he declined. Ted Cruz made overtures through attorney Chuck Cooper, a mutual friend, which fell on deaf ears. Cotton had ideological differences with Rubio on immigration, an issue on which he believes Trump’s outspokenness is a plus. “There’s no issue on which elites in both parties are more disconnected from the American people — in both parties — than immigration,” Cotton told The New Yorker recently.
Politically speaking, Cotton had plenty of room to lay into Trump had he wanted to do so. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson took a strong stand against Trump days before the state’s March 1 primary, in which Trump would go on narrowly to defeat Cruz. “It is up to Arkansas to stop the Donald Trump show,” Hutchinson said in late February. “The next generation of conservatives cannot allow Donald Trump to take everything we stand for and throw it away.”
“Cotton knows just as much as Sasse how bad Trump is,” says a Republican operative close to both men. “Cotton is being a little more political than he ought to be, but part of that is that in Arkansas, Trump is actually a fairly good fit among Republicans, and the Clintons are very poisonous.”
Thus, Cotton has conspicuously declined to join in any of the hand-wringing that other Republican lawmakers have engaged in about whether to support Trump, and has played no role in the search for a third-party candidate. “I think Cotton has been more realistic in that Republican voters chose the nominee and not the other way around,” says a top Republican Senate aide.
He made it clear early on that the businessman would have his support if he won the nomination. “Well, I think he could be the commander in chief. He’s one of our leading candidates, and as I said, any of our candidates right now would be a better commander in chief” than Hillary Clinton, Cotton said in March, when the primary contest was still underway. “They’d be a more serious leader for our country than Hillary Clinton.”
But Cotton’s most high-profile supporters, from Kristol to Republican mega-donor Paul Singer to many in the conservative foreign-policy community, have been among Trump’s most passionate detractors. Kristol told me last week that he is “almost equally appalled at the thought of Hillary and Trump,” and he has led the effort to recruit a third-party candidate. Singer last month denounced Trump before a crowd gathered at a Manhattan Institute gala in New York City, and virtually the entire conservative foreign-policy establishment declared its opposition to Trump in a letter organized by the former State Department official Eliot Cohen.
Though none would say so on the record, Cotton’s silence has been a disappointment to many Never Trumpers. One called it “a fly in my vanilla milkshake” — something that would forever sully his view of Cotton. And his careful positioning has resulted, at least for now, in a slightly diminished reputation among top conservative donors and opinion makers.
Cotton has conspicuously declined to join in any of the hand-wringing that other Republican lawmakers have engaged in about whether to support Trump.
Meanwhile, in late February, just days before the all-important Super Tuesday primaries, in which Trump would carry Cotton’s home state of Arkansas, Sasse became the most high-profile Republican lawmaker to declare that he would never support the real-estate mogul. He didn’t stop there. Instead, he took to Twitter, using one of the platforms that have fueled Trump’s candidacy to denounce the billionaire businessman.
“Here’s where I’m at,” Sasse tweeted on February 28. “If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, my expectation is that I will look for some third candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
Over the past three months, his Twitter and Facebook accounts have served as the vehicles for anti-Trump statements that are quirky, intellectual, and strangely absorbing, in part because they seem to reveal his own internal deliberations.
Sasse laments his colleagues’ political caution when it comes to Trump, and he has continued to speak his mind without seeming to worry about the political consequences. Indeed, he has taken a hit for his stance back in Nebraska: Last month, the state Republican party passed a resolution affirming that it would not support any lawmaker or politician who refused to back the Republican nominee or supported a third-party candidate; it was widely viewed as a shot at Sasse. Politico on Monday published a report in which slew of disgruntled Nebraska Republicans aired their grievances with the first-term senator. “Depending on what Trump does, that could change, but the initial reaction wasn’t very good,” says the GOP aide of the blowback.
Sasse opposes Trump, yes, but in his view Trump’s ascent has evinced an even greater crisis: the indifference of large swathes of the American public to basic constitutional matters. Sasse, who has a doctorate in history from Yale, has as times sounded more like a professor working to reeducate voters about their duty as citizens than a politician positioning himself for the next election.
“It’s time for us to ask ourselves, what is the president’s core calling? What is his job according to the Constitution?” he tweeted on February 29. “One election won’t make America great again. Defending the Constitution will. Takes more than bumper sticker promises,” he said last month. And in contrast to Cotton, who talks like a lab-made politician, Sasse has mouthed off like somebody without much of a long-term game. “There are dumpster fires in my town more popular than these two ‘leaders,’” he has said of Trump and Hillary Clinton.
This posture has made Sasse something of a folk hero to the conservative intellectuals working to stop Trump. Kristol, for example, has repeatedly pleaded with Sasse to launch a third-party presidential bid, and Sasse has become a known commodity on the right in part thanks to those who were once Cotton’s most enthusiastic boosters. Many conservatives who barely knew his name a year ago now hope Sasse will be among the contenders in 2020. In a piece titled “Sassing the Donald,” The Weekly Standard noted, “People have moved from asking ‘Who is Ben Sasse?’ to ‘Who does Ben Sasse think he is?’”
Tom Cotton is known largely for where he stands on the issues — for his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform and for his hawkishness on foreign policy. Ben Sasse is now known primarily as one of Trump’s most talented antagonists. It’s unclear yet who has made the savvier bet. November will say much about the future of the GOP, and perhaps about the future of these two young, up-and-coming conservatives, as well.
— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.
EDITOR’s NOTE: This article has been updated since its original posting.