After Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor last week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a text of his address to every Republican senator. This was unusual. McConnell rarely does anything quite like this.
It was all the more surprising since Sasse is a freshman who declared during his Senate campaign in 2014 that McConnell was one of the problems with Washington. To say the clash with McConnell was overblown is putting it mildly. In any case, friends of Sasse advised him to stifle negative references to McConnell. And Sasse did just that.
Though he was the unofficial Tea Party candidate in the Nebraska race, Sasse now appears to have landed on the good side of the distinction McConnell draws between senators eager to make a point and those who prefer to make a difference.
Sasse belongs on the make-a-difference side. He is not another Ted Cruz, a point maker, and he indicated as much in his speech. For one thing, he revived a long-forgotten Senate tradition by waiting a year from his election before uttering a single word on the Senate floor. Silence is not a Cruz trait.
And Sasse said this: “To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits, few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions.” It was seen as a shot at Cruz, McConnell’s least favorite GOP senator.
McConnell had another reason for liking Sasse’s riveting, richly detailed address. It was in some ways a higher-octane version of a speech McConnell gave last year. Sasse said the Senate has lost its way and “allowed the short-termism of sound bite culture to invade this chamber.” McConnell said the Senate “can be better than it has been . . . and must be if we are to remain great as a nation.”
One phrase stands out, since both used it. McConnell said Senate committees should be relied on more. “That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become,” he said. Sasse agreed there’s a problem. Senate rules have been exploited as “shirts and skins exercises,” he said.
Despite all this, Sasse is unlikely to become a McConnell lieutenant. His background is not that of a follower. He got a B.A. at Harvard and a Ph.D. at Yale (in history) and studied at St. John’s and Oxford. He was a corporate turnaround specialist, a “strategy guy,” as he calls it. He worked as chief of staff to a House member and was an assistant secretary of health and human services in the George W. Bush administration. Senator is his first elective office. It’s “the least productive” of all the things “I’ve done in my life,” Sasse told me.
He certainly was more productive as president of Midland University from 2010 through 2014. Midland is a small liberal arts college in Nebraska a few miles from his hometown of Fremont. He enlivened its campus and curriculum and doubled its enrollment, as Mark Hemingway chronicled in The Weekly Standard in 2013. He left Midland for the Senate.
Sasse’s model senator is Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). The two never met, but Sasse taught about Moynihan’s career as a scholar and politician during a stint in the classroom at the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs in 2005 and 2006. A Harvard professor by trade, Moynihan was a policy adviser in the Nixon White House, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a senator from New York from 1977 to 2001, and a prolific author. He died in 2003.
“I sit quite intentionally at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s desk,” Sasse said in his speech. He “cast a huge shadow around here for a quarter-century. . . .He read social science prolifically, and sought constantly to bring data to bear on the debates in this chamber. Like any genuinely curious person, he asked lots of questions—so you couldn’t automatically know what policy he would ultimately advocate just because he asked hard questions of everyone. He had the capacity to surprise us.”
Moynihan was an old-fashioned liberal, but one can imagine a conservative playing a similar role. Sasse is uniquely capable of playing it. And he intends to. With last week’s speech, he’s already provided a surprise.
Few rookie senators have the knowledge and moxie to uncork a withering critique of the Senate. Sasse does. He spent months figuring out what he wanted to say. He consulted more than half the senators, plus some former senators. When I interviewed him at Ben’s Chili Bowl at National Airport four days before his speech, he said he might be judged too “idealistic.” Presumptuousness wasn’t a worry of his.