In the summer before an election year, a Midwestern Republican announcing he’s running for reelection to the Senate shouldn’t be particularly newsworthy.
But then there’s Nebraska senator Ben Sasse.
A sample Twitter reaction to his reelection announcement this week: ‘In the annals of absolute uselessness, whole chapters will be devoted to the political career of Ben Sasse.’ Indeed, the Harvard-educated Sasse had become a sort of folk hero for the Acela corridor. He was the one member of the Senate who wouldn’t just respond to your tweets, he’d clap back. He wrote books that weren’t about politics. And he was shamelessly nerdy, taking on issues like cybersecurity and the sharing economy – the latter of which he explored by becoming an Uber driver during a Senate recess – that many of his colleagues fail to prioritize because they don’t fall along an easy left-right divide or get voters to the polls.
But Sasse’s sassy Twitter presence had fallen conspicuously silent in recent months. When he announced his reelection campaign, it was peppered with spoon-fed jargon of the Trump era, including a classification of the broader Democratic opposition as ‘socialism.’ The political media, many of whom had thought he might not even run for reelection, heaved a sigh of disappointment.
What was the root of this? Some in the slithery clutch of the political Twitter ouroboros had hailed Sasse as a ‘moderate.’ He was certainly a NeverTrumper. But, I’d argue, no one of mens sana had any delusions that he wasn’t a churchgoing WASP from the Great Plains with the ideological bent to match it. Sasse’s draw to the media literati wasn’t political, but rather that he came across as the Senate’s equivalent of a cynical clock-puncher. If his tweets were any indication, he kind of hated his job. He wasn’t thrilled about his boss. He took jabs at his co-workers, as with his running gag about stealing Ted Cruz’s Dr Pepper fridge and his routine nods to internet memes about the Texas senator either being the Zodiac Killer or the son of JFK’s assassin (or both), turning Cruz into the Dwight Schrute to his Jim Halpert. He spent enough time tweeting wacky news headlines (a tweet about ‘Man hiding drugs in butt accidentally shoots self in testicles’ was, surprisingly, not the first time in 2019 that Sasse posted a link to a story about someone firing a gun into his balls) that it was pretty clear he had a penchant for slacking off.
In short: Sasse was the only member of the Senate who seemed to be in on the joke and was apparently just as sick of the whole charade as the rest of us were. A politician who didn’t always want to talk about politics – the novelty! For liberals, minus the cranky purists who hated that someone ideologically opposed to them might share their snarky sense of humor, Sasse was the rare elected Republican who’d respond to their Twitter dissents. For old-school conservatives, his clean-cut adherence to Bush-era party principles that Trumpism has upended (last we heard, he still hated tariffs) was refreshing.
Fellow senators of Sasse’s relatively junior vintage – he is 47 – well, not so much. Cory Booker seems to still be harboring childhood fantasies of being a superhero and his resulting earnestness can be beyond cloying. Josh Hawley has been elevating his profile with a nutty crusade to regulate social media companies that makes you wonder if a girl rejected him on Friendster once. Kirsten Gillibrand and Marco Rubio seem to be willing to say whatever consultants tell them to. The post-Boomer politicians had turned out to be, well, typical politicians.
Sasse, meanwhile, came across as the occasional cast member on The Real World who seemed to be slyly winking at the camera during confessionals. For those in the sphere of the digital media industry (political or otherwise), weary of the people in our social circles who can’t seem to talk about anything but partisan issues and are quick to demonize those ideologically opposed to them, Ben Sasse was a breath of fresh air. To see him go silent on Twitter and devolve into electoral talking points isn’t so much because we thought he was something else politically. It’s because we finally thought a state had elected somebody just as tired of hashtag outrage and nonstop partisanship as we were.
Many people, and not just media professionals, privately complain: does everything have to be about politics? According to Sasse, or what we all thought of Sasse, it didn’t. That’s what makes his about-turn so frustrating.
But he’s not out of the woods yet. Democrats are targeting his seat, hoping that he’ll be weakened by a bloody primary fight. No matter what bargain the national GOP may have made for him to fall in line, he does still have at least one primary challenger who will undoubtedly question his party loyalty. He won’t be able to rely on being a media darling this time around. By dropping the facade of being lovable and self-aware and kind of hating politics, this time around Sen. Sasse could be the one metaphorically shooting himself in the balls.