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Who is Ben Sasse's base?

Conservative Review

Our politics need help. The country is divided, we are angry, and no one really knows what to do about it. The Left descends into hysterical violence and using deplorable tactics in the pursuit of power. The Right holds more political power than at any time since before the Great Depression, yet the entrenched D.C. political establishment has worked against real change and left too many Americans feeling disenfranchised.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., genuinely wants to heal the country. He's released a new book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal,” in which he calls out both sides of the political divide for their respective tribalism, begging each to stop before they tear the country apart. But is his message received?

Leftists stop listening to Ben Sasse when they read the "R" next to his name. That's expected. But many conservatives dismiss Sasse as a NeverTrumper and won't listen to him either. Despite one of the most conservative voting records in the United States Senate, Sasse is only known for criticizing President Donald Trump and attacking conservative media. Part of the problem is that Sasse's public voice feeds that perception.

Take this week's controversy, in which Sasse called out Fox News host Sean Hannity on Twitter. In his book, Sasse calls Hannity an "outrage merchant," accusing the host of Fox News' number-one prime-time show of forgoing conservatism to peddle a message of "Liberals are evil, you’re a victim, and you should be furious." Sasse has challenged Hannity to a public debate on the matter.

To which Hannity has responded:

Many conservatives are left scratching their heads at this Twitter exchange, because Sasse demonstrates a willingness to engage Hannity publicly, but he's less visible when it comes to the taking on the Left or advancing a conservative agenda. The Federalist's Sean Davis speaks for many conservatives:

What Sasse is missing is a base of support that will tolerate his criticisms for Hannity or for Trump because they know that on the issues in the Senate, he's fighting for them. When he ran for Senate in 2014, he had that base. Recall that he made health care reform a pivotal part of his platform. Boasting that he was one of a handful of people who actually read the entirety of Obamacare, he stressed that his experience in the health care industry equipped him to solve the problems of rising insurance costs and fewer choices imposed by the Obamacare regulatory regime. He spoke to the dominant issue for conservative Republicans in that election cycle. He was elected with conservative support, including Hannity's, and no one can deny his voting record as a conservative is exemplary.

But since he was elected, he's lost the conservative base's trust because the base rarely hears him champion the issues that matter to them.

Think of the major fights of Trump's presidency. Sasse was not vocal on fighting the GOP plan to preserve most of Obamacare. Now that the Republican Party is caught in a health care crisis, accepting the Democrats' presumptions on pre-existing conditions coverage, has Sasse spoken up about any of the free-market reforms he campaigned for in 2014? No. When the Democrats "shut down the government" for amnesty in January, did Sasse make the case for having a fight on border security? No, he called the budget process "garbage" but voted for the garbage anyway. What about the tax cuts? A Twitter search for "tax" finds several Sasse tweets about tariffs being bad (true) and his opinion that presidents should release their tax returns. But Sasse did not use that platform to argue for the GOP tax cuts or for making them permanent.

When Sasse does use his voice, whether on Twitter or cable news, he is most widely known for his NeverTrump position and as a fierce critic of the president. Partly, that's because the mainstream media is invested in attacking Trump and seizes on Sasse's anti-Trump comments while ignoring his conservative statements. Did you know, for instance, that Sasse's book savages NBC News' Brian Williams for his serial lies and devotes as much time to attacking the left-wing media's outrage factory as to attacking Hannity? The mainstream media won't report that because it is biased and wants conservatives to be divided. But publicly, Sasse gives the liberal media ample ammunition while leaving conservative media little to fight back with.

Sasse's message about civility may be attractive to some NeverTrumpers and Trump-critical conservatives, but it's toxic to the majority of people who voted for him in 2014 because they don't think he has their back as a leader. They see a senator who spends all of his political capital attacking the president and put Sasse in a mental box with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., two RINO anti-Trump senators who are not running for re-election right now because they couldn't win a Republican primary.

If Sasse wants to heal the country and advance conservatism, he needs to be able to reach these people. He needs a base of support. What conservatives wanted from Sasse in 2014, what they still want from him, is to lead on the issues in the Senate. A real conservative leader needs to force tough votes, engage behind the scenes, get liberal Republican colleagues on the record opposing a conservative agenda. If Sasse had done that first, he would be in a better position to criticize, because he would have the credentials with the base to do it. This is how Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., are able to be at odds with Trump and yet have avoided the stigma the base attaches to Sasse.

In attacking Trump and Hannity, Sasse is appealing to the mainstream media, but the mainstream media is not a base. The media is progressive and will never support Sasse. Come time for Sasse's re-election in 2020, the media will try to destroy him, exactly like it tried to destroy Brett Kavanaugh. A united conservative base fended off the attacks on Kavanaugh, but because Sasse has not been visible on the issues, because he is alienating his base, he's not going to find the support he needs.

Some might say it is noble of Sasse to say what he believes in, even if it means losing an election. But if Sasse is replaced by a rhetorically pro-Trump empty-suit Republican who undermines the president and conservatives with an "F" voting record, how does that help the country?

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