Ben Sasse, health-care expert and Senate candidate
It’s not easy to pile up more than 20,000 sheets of paper — the number of pages of regulations associated with Obamacare, according to some estimates. Yet it’s an effective prop for Ben Sasse, a Republican running for Senate in Nebraska. “This is a picture of what government can’t do well, wasn’t built to do, and inevitably fails at,” he says, gesturing toward the tower of paper. At full height, the pages stand more than nine feet tall. On the evening of December 17, in the First National Bank of Holdrege with its eight-foot ceiling, the top segment has to rest on a nearby table. “Government this big squashes freedom,” says Sasse. A man in the audience senses a more imminent threat: “I’m hoping that stack doesn’t fall on you!” It stays up during an hour-long town-hall meeting in part because a pipe runs through the middle of the pages like a spine, holding them together. Aides wheel the contraption around on a dolly and store it in the bowels of the campaign’s RV.
Sasse is betting that deep discontent with Obamacare will drive him into the Senate later this year. Nebraska is all but certain to elect a Republican to succeed retiring GOP senator Mike Johanns, so the state’s main election will take place on May 13, when Sasse squares off against banker Sid Dinsdale, former state treasurer Shane Osborn, and two other Republicans in this year’s first truly contested Senate primary. Between now and then, each candidate will position himself as a conservative and rail against Obamacare. With Sasse, however, Nebraska Republicans have an opportunity to do more: They can elect not merely a man who promises to vote for the repeal of President Obama’s signature policy achievement, but a senator who almost immediately would become one of the GOP’s most visible and articulate experts on the health-care law’s defects and the ways to replace it.
The 41-year-old Benjamin Eric Sasse is a fifth-generation Nebraskan, a fact that he’s eager to point out because he’s spent most of his adult life away from the Cornhusker State. His stump speeches often begin with a reference to family reunions near Beatrice, a farming town that is also the site of the Homestead National Monument, honoring the Homestead Act of 1862. “It was one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history,” says Sasse of the law that put 270 million acres of public land into private hands. “It was only a page and a half long.” The Affordable Care Act requires about a dozen pages just to get through its table of contents.
After growing up in Fremont, where he was the high-school valedictorian, Sasse left for Harvard: “Not because of superior academics, but because of inferior athletics,” he jokes. He wrestled for two years and specialized in head-butting his opponents. Sasse has a long scar at the top of his forehead, along his hairline, from falling off a hayloft as a boy. “I have no feeling there,” he says. “It gave me a small advantage.” He left the wrestling team to spend his junior year abroad, and then earned a degree in government. Next came an itinerant career in business consulting, combining full-time employment with full-time study. He roamed the country, working with clients such as Ameritech and Northwest Airlines, while he also pursued a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and then a Ph.D. in history from Yale. His dissertation, on populist conservatism from the 1950s to the 1970s, won a pair of prestigious campus prizes. “He’s insanely disciplined and incredibly hard-working,” says Will Inboden, a University of Texas professor who lived across the street from Sasse when they were graduate students at Yale. “It’s amazing how much he did.” The virtue of work is a constant theme in Sasse’s speeches and conversation. “Work is where meaning is,” he says. “I don’t know how capitalism and America function if people work to get beyond working, just so they can get to leisure.” One of his favorite recent books is Coming Apart, by Charles Murray, especially for its section on the importance of industriousness.
As a boy, Sasse embodied industriousness: He spent his summers “walking beans and detasseling corn” — i.e., weeding soybean fields and controlling corn pollination. He describes cool and wet mornings, hot and humid afternoons, muddy furrows, sore ankles, spider bites, sunburns, and “corn rash,” which forms on hands, arms, and faces when corn stalks deliver nicks and bruises hour after hour, day after day. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most formative experience of my life,” he says. “When you survive a season of this, you’re a different person at the end.” He worries that young people don’t learn the same lessons today. “We have a crisis in the work ethic,” he says. “Politics can’t fix our culture, but politics can lie to us long enough to keep us from focusing on the cultural issues in our own lives.”
In 2001, Sasse was pushing toward his Ph.D. and commuting from New Haven to San Diego. With planes grounded in the aftermath of 9/11, he couldn’t fly home to his wife and their newborn daughter. So he rented a car. “I was driving through Texas on I-40, listening to high-school football games on the radio,” he says. “The announcers were full of patriotic zeal.” By the time he reached the eastern seaboard, he wanted to join what would become the War on Terror. “Everybody was complaining that parts of the intelligence apparatus weren’t talking to each other,” he says. “I had some experience with post-merger integration in the business world and thought I might be able to help.” His time as a corporate adviser influenced both the way he thinks about problems and the way he talks. In conversation, Sasse has a tendency to slip into consultantspeak, mentioning “modal experiences” and “utils.” He casually refers to “the Murray adjacencies” when he means issues related to those raised by Charles Murray.
Within a few months of 9/11, Sasse was chief of staff at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, a kind of in-house think tank where he concentrated on everything from intelligence-sharing rules to Islamic radicalization in federal prisons. He went on to work for Republican congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, and later as an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. There, during the final two years of the Bush administration, Sasse dealt with health policy every day. “I started digging into the data on health-entitlement spending and all the promises that politicians have made, and I saw that the math didn’t add up,” he says. “Most of us were taught that government exists to provide for the common defense — a military and a social-safety net — but the actual budgets show that our government has become a big insurance company that also runs a navy.” His responsibilities at HHS included providing advice on the implementation of the Medicare prescription-drug program known as Part D, a Bush-era entitlement whose adoption Sasse says he opposed.
After Obama’s election, Sasse moved back to Nebraska but also traveled around, giving speeches to investor groups and holding debates with former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. In 2009, Sasse wrote a column for U.S. News & World Report calling Part D “enormously successful” and a “viable model for reform.” At least one of his opponents, Shane Osborn, has cited these lines to question Sasse’s conservative credentials. “Look,” says Sasse, frustrated by the allegations, “I was making a case that when writing future legislation, policymakers should understand why Part D is the least bad way to run one of these programs. Medicare would be much better if Parts A and B looked more like Part D. You can say truthfully that one part of a program is decent, and yet more fundamentally that we shouldn’t have unfunded entitlement programs. I’ve always been against the generational theft that goes on in Washington. We need honest budgets.” Howard Dean, for his part, wonders why anyone would doubt Sasse’s bona fides. “He’s absolutely a free-market conservative,” he says. “I wouldn’t vote for him, but he sticks to the truth and makes good, tight arguments for conservative health-care reform.”
Since returning to Nebraska, Sasse has spent most of his time focused on his day job as president of Midland University, in his home town of Fremont. When he took over in 2009, the 130-year-old Lutheran school was suffering from dwindling enrollment, stumbling toward bankruptcy, and thinking about shutting down. From a small office where he regularly wobbles on a balance board while taking phone calls, Sasse laid off staff, ended lifetime tenure for professors, and recruited students. Today, Midland is one of the fastest-growing colleges in the Midwest, and it recently acquired Dana College, a historic competitor. Sasse has served in this role for more than four years — his longest stint with any single employer.
As a college president, Sasse likes to conduct informal surveys of students. “I ask them what the Republican party stands for,” he says. “Most don’t have a clue. They think Republicans are for rich people and big business. We’ve got to do a better job of conveying our ideas. We need to have an American constitutional, reformation, revival movement.”
A year ago, Sasse’s candidacy was inconceivable, as most people in Nebraska figured that Senator Johanns would opt for a second term. In February, however, Johanns said he wouldn’t run again, at which point speculation shifted to Dave Heineman, the term-limited Republican governor: Surely he would seek the open Senate seat. Sasse even donated to the governor’s political committee. Yet by Memorial Day, Heineman had bowed out as well. Two months later, Sasse decided to kick off his first political campaign. He raised money like a veteran: By October, he boasted a haul of $815,000, far outpacing his competitors. A string of high-profile endorsements followed: the Senate Conservatives Fund in October, the Club for Growth in November, and Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in December.
A chief concern of first-time candidates is name recognition: Voters haven’t heard of them before. Sasse tried to tackle the problem on January 4, with an advertisement during the NFL playoffs, becoming the first candidate in his race to air a television commercial. He hopes to repeat the success of Deb Fischer, an obscure state lawmaker who won Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary two years ago against a pair of better-known candidates. Nearly half of the state’s GOP voters live in the state’s big third congressional district, in the vast open spaces where the Midwest meets the West. Fischer comes from this area — and Sasse spends as much time there as possible, driving around in an RV with giant red-and-white messages on the outside and shotgun-shell Christmas lights on the inside. “It’s like I’m Chevy Chase in a Vacation movie about running for office,” he says.
Sasse faces an additional obstacle: a surname perhaps best described as unfortunate. It rhymes with “pass” but looks like “sassy,” and a bad-luck photo-cropping job could put him in front of a campaign sign that simply says “ass.” In any other state, his perfectly good first name would be an excellent bumper-sticker option, but in Nebraska it recalls that other Ben, the retired Democratic senator Ben Nelson — he of the “Cornhusker kickback” and the 60th vote for Obamacare. At a television studio in Lincoln on December 19, Sasse tries anyway: “My last name is Sasse, but feel free to call me Ben,” he says to a producer before going on air. The hosts of the show wind up calling him “Dr. Sasse.”
That makes him sound like a medical doctor, even though his doctoral degree is in history. Yet Sasse talks about health care often enough to seem like a physician — or at least a physician who specializes in policy. “I’ve read the entire Affordable Care Act,” he says. “It was a slow period in my life,” he adds, almost apologetically. “The Obamacare worldview is that only government can solve big problems, budget honesty doesn’t matter, and dependency is our future.” He thinks repeal is a possibility, but only if the next two cycles of congressional elections go well for conservatives and a Republican wins the presidency in 2016. Yet he’s no wild-eyed optimist: “The most likely outcome is a single-payer system because that’s the easiest thing for a lazy and broken Washington to lie about and let us drift into.” Avoiding this future, he says, will take more than a few victories at the ballot box. “Conservatives have to remember that Obamacare didn’t break health care. It was broken in 2008 as well. One of the reasons we wound up with Obamacare is because conservatives didn’t communicate an alternative.”
Sasse recommends a three-point approach: End the tax bias that has turned health insurance into a perk of employment, allow consumers to buy policies across state lines, and give states more responsibility for their social safety nets. “Democrats may be the party of bad ideas, but Republicans too often are the party of no ideas — and bad ideas will beat no ideas every time,” he says, in a line that he repeats whenever he’s in front of voters. Last summer, in an op-ed for the Omaha World-Herald, he called on Republicans to defund Obamacare. While he has clashed with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in private, he is not eager to declare war on GOP leaders who opposed the government shutdown. He thinks he understands the popular appeal of the tea-party insurrectionists, especially Senator Ted Cruz of Texas: “He’s trying to bring urgency to the biggest problems we face. His acclaim is driven by the fact that he’s willing to say the house is on fire — and so much of Washington refuses to admit this truth.”
At campaign stops along I-80, nobody wants to talk to Sasse about Iran’s nuclear program or the NSA’s intrusions on cell-phone privacy. Instead, he faces a barrage of questions about health care, from workers watching their costs skyrocket and small-business owners worried about growth. There are broader concerns, too: “One of the most common questions I get is some version of whether we’ve come to the end of America,” says Sasse. “People are worried that we’re in decline, and that one of the reasons we’re in decline is because our leaders refuse to discuss it.” When the subject comes up, Sasse tries to acknowledge these concerns and sound a few hopeful notes. Then he says ordinary citizens must do their part: “We have to teach the American idea to our kids. The inertia of motion does not preserve a republic.”