Ben Sasse, the president of Midland College, is the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination to fill an open Senate seat in Nebraska. He has received the endorsements and financial support of just about every major national Republican group worth mentioning.
Nonetheless, opposition to his candidacy has become a unifying cause for Tea Party Republicans and Libertarian groups in the state, who believe that his views are not far enough to the Far Right. A few national figures, most notably Sarah Palin, have weighed in on the side of those opposing his candidacy.
To some casual observers, this backlash against his candidacy may seem somewhat surprising since his most memorable political ad seems pointedly designed to appeal to anti-government and, more specifically, anti-Washington sentiment. In that political ad, Sasse suggested that the nation’s capital has become so irredeemably corrupt that the only way to reduce the influence of entrenched special interests may be to move the capital to Nebraska.
When he was subsequently asked why such a proposal should possibly be taken seriously—and implicitly, why any political figure who would make it should be taken seriously—Sasse admitted that it was very unlikely that anyone would be able to muster the votes needed to relocate the nation’s capital. But, of course, the very impossibility of the proposal’s being adopted could also be understood as the strongest evidence of its necessity—of the degree to which special interests have become very deeply entrenched.
And, as if to reassure everyone that he is not himself a yahoo even if he might appear to be floating political impossibilities with a special appeal to yahoos, Sasse described the proposal to relocate the nation’s capital to Nebraska as a “thought experiment.”
Maybe that phrase was his mistake.
For it conjures up images of clandestine mind experiments, of rogue regimes taking control of not just political institutions but of the very souls of the people whom they govern.
But I suspect that Sasse’s deeper problem is simply his biography. His Wikipedia profile highlights a pattern of chronic over-achievement, a person seemingly always advancing himself on multiple fronts at the same time in a manner that very few people could manage at all, never mind manage to sustain. He has somehow combined academic, political, and consulting careers, without any of the three tracks seeming to suffer from his engagement in the others.
But his biography also highlights someone who has taken advantage of many opportunities that are usually reserved for the very privileged—most notably, degrees from multiple Ivy League institutions and a period of study at Oxford University in the U.K. Moreover, Sasse has developed the sort of profitable connections that were certainly enhanced by his rising position within the George W. Bush administration.
Sasse appears to have made roughly three times the income from his expertise as a consultant on health-industry investments than he has made as president of Midland College–but while he was president at Midland College–where he has reportedly been paid close to $300,000 to lead a school with an enrollment of less than 1,500 students. That is double the enrollment that the college had in 2010, when he became president, and perhaps that is why the college’s board of trustees was willing to pay him half that salary even after he had created a “chairman’s cabinet” to do much of the daily administration of the college—and to free up his own time to pursue his own political ambitions.
It is quite a life story, and one that might be considered exemplary in many respects, especially given that Sasse is barely over 40 years old.
But it is not the biography of someone who can credibly define himself as an “outsider,” as someone whose values place him at considerable remove from the corrupting influences of the nation’s capital. It is not the biography of someone who would suggest that the nation’s capital be relocated to Nebraska without having calculated to whom such a proposal might most appeal.
It is the biography of someone who has so singularly over-achieved that it would be almost impossible for him not to be consumed by ambition and not to be at many levels very disconnected from those whose life stories have had much more ordinary arcs.
Perhaps that is what those most opposed to his candidacy have figured out.
I suspect that Sasse is learning the lesson learned by all clearly intelligent politicians who try to pander to stupidity: you can fool stupid people about a great many things, but they can recognize who is and is not one of their own. This basic truth explains both the enduring appeal of Sarah Palin among the yahoo voters on the Far Right and the opposition to Sasse’s candidacy.