Ben Sasse Is Not the Republican Savior

The Nebraska senator wrote a widely discussed open letter condemning Clinton and Trump. The spirit is right, but the substance is thin.

Nati Harnik / AP

Kudos to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse for reaffirming in a widely discussedopen letter” that he won’t support Donald Trump. I just wish the letter weren’t so self-righteously dumb.

Sasse, often mentioned as a potential third-party candidate, addresses his missive to the “majority of America” that believes that “both leading presidential candidates are dishonest.” He goes onto declare that neither Trump nor Hillary are “honorable people” nor “healthy leader[s],” whatever that means.

That’s an ironic way to begin a letter that later denounces “character attacks.” It’s true that many voters doubt Clinton’s trustworthiness. But Sasse offers no evidence that Clinton has been particularly dishonest in this campaign and the nonpartisan institutions that evaluate politicians’ veracity suggest the opposite. The fact-checking website Politifact rates 49 percent of Clinton’s statements “true” and 29 percent “false.” That’s substantially better than Marco Rubio (36 percent true, 42 percent false) and Ted Cruz (25 percent true, 64 percent false), neither of whom Sasse would call dishonest, let alone dishonorable or unhealthy. And it’s in a different solar system from Donald Trump, whose ratio as judged by Politifact is a mind-boggling 9 percent true to 76 percent false.

Sasse goes onto say that “neither political party works” and that both are “enough of a mess that I believe they will come apart.” That’s untrue. Sasse’s GOP is indeed in trouble, both because it’s on the wrong side of the country’s biggest demographic changes and because it’s on the verge of a nominating a man who many party elders despise. But the Democratic Party has rarely been stronger and more united. For all the talk about the divisions between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, 86 percent of Sanders supporters say they’ll support Clinton in the fall. By contrast, only 70 percent of Republicans who voted against Trump in the primaries say they’ll back him. According to an April Pew Research Center poll, 88 percent of Democrats view their party favorably compared to only 68 percent of Republicans. Among Americans as a whole, the Democratic Party’s approval rating exceeds the GOP’s by 12 points.

This isn’t surprising. The Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. From health care to gay rights to the Iran deal, Barack Obama has more successfully implemented his agenda than any Democratic president in a half-century. And polls suggest that Democrats will keep the White House this fall, while likely taking the Senate and potentially even the House. If that’s what Sasse calls party failure, what does he call party success?

Finally, Sasse denounces the two parties for being unable to “even identify the biggest issues we face.” What are those issues? Sasse defines them as “a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad,” “balance[ing] our budget,” “empowering states and local governments to improve K-12 education,” “retiring career politicians by ending all the incumbency protections” and “protect[ing] First Amendment values in the face of the safe-space movement.”

And he says Clinton and Trump are out of touch? For all their flaws, both presumptive nominees have made stagnant wages the centerpiece of their campaigns. Both have rightly talked about America’s deteriorating infrastructure. Both have talked about immigration. Both have talked about the dislocations caused by trade. Hillary Clinton has also talked about mass incarceration. And she’s emphasized climate change, which could put Miami and New Orleans under water in a decade.

None of these make Sasse’s list of “biggest issues.” Instead, he includes balancing the budget, something many economists consider unnecessary, if not counterproductive. He calls for a national-security strategy for an “age of jihad,” even though China is a vastly more formidable global competitor than ISIS and Americans are more likely to be crushed by their own furniture than to die in a terrorist attack. He also mentions “protect[ing] First Amendment values in the face of the safe-space movement.” Multiple prominent members of Sasse’s party, along with their presumptive presidential nominee, have proposed a religious litmus test for entering the United States. And he thinks the biggest danger to “First Amendment values” is posed by 19-year-olds who want their colleges to outlaw blackface?

Sasse ends his letter with the hashtag #WeCanDoBetter. Yes, we can. Let’s hope he can too.