But once he starts speaking, Sasse doesn’t plan to stop. He has concocted an audacious plan to get his fellow senators’ attention—one he hopes could rescue the moribund upper house from its current torpor.
Sasse is, in fact, a historian by training, among other things—he may have the Senate’s most varied resume, from the five degrees (Harvard undergrad, three master’s, Yale Ph.D) to several executive-branch positions in the Bush administration (Department of Justice, Health and Human Services) to corporate consulting to academia. When he set out to run for Senate last year, he was the president of a small Lutheran school in his home state, Midland College, whose faltering enrollment and finances he successfully turned around; running with a hybrid of establishment credentials and Tea Party passion, he defeated two better-known candidates in the Republican primary and sailed to victory in the general election.
Sasse says he has approached the Senate like a company in need of a culture change. “I’ve done 26 crisis and turnaround projects in the last 21 years, so I’m used to going into places that are really broken,” he says. “You always have to walk this fine line between learning a place—by being humble and asking questions and having empathy for real humans laboring in broken institutions—and resolve, that you’re going to still steel yourself to not let human empathy cloud the fact that a broken institution is a broken institution.” In his speech today, according to a draft, he plans to say, “I believe that a cultural recovery inside the Senate is a partial prerequisite for national recovery.”
What the heck does this mean? And if the problem with the Senate is that senators aren’t listening to each other’s speeches, can you really hope to fix it by giving another speech nobody listens to?
Sasse can seem, from the perspective of a jaded Washington insider, hopelessly naïve—like when, a month ago, he went off on a multi-part rant on Twitter about the need for Republicans to think bigger when it came to selecting a speaker of the House and suggested that Arthur Brooks, the right-wing theorist and happiness guru, might be the man for the job. Sasse is fond of saying that the things Washington fights over are boring to regular people and that there are plenty of folks in Nebraska who could run the country better than its current elected leaders, which sounds very much like the kind of diversionary hooey politicians frequently spout to convince voters they’re not, in fact, politicians.
But Sasse insists what he’s proposing in Tuesday’s speech is more than just a bunch of pious baloney. He has a three-part plan, based—naturally—on historical precedent, to make his mark now that he’s opened his mouth to speak—and get his colleagues to pay attention.
Sasse’s first historical model is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York Democrat, whose Senate desk Sasse has commandeered. Moynihan once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”; Sasse believes facts too often go missing when today’s senators talk. The second model is Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine who served in the 1950s and ‘60s and who, despite her strong opposition to Communism, felt compelled to call out her fellow Republican, Joseph McCarthy, for his political witch hunts. Sasse sees her as an icon of putting principle ahead of party.