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January 16, 2014 5:07 PM The True Believer

By Ed Kilgore

Via Dave Weigel, I ran across a campaign video prepared by Ben Sasse, the “true conservative” candidate for the Senate from Nebraska this year. Sasse has been endorsed by the usual suspects (the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth), but also by Paul Ryan; he was the subject of an adulatory profile in National Review; he’s raised nearly a million smackers; and it’s reasonable to think he has a fighting chance of winning a May primary. His resume positions him as a wonder boy like Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, though with educational rather than military credentials (he’s currently president of a Lutheran college in Nebraska, and before that taught at the LBJ School at UT).

He is also, as he wants people to know via the video in question, a fierce anti-choice activist.

Sasse immediately identifies himself with the “foot soldiers of the Right to Life movement,” and then blows every dog whistle to said foot soldiers I can think of. There’s the confident assertion of the personhood of zygotes, which he calls “babies” throughout. There’s the reference to “abortifacient birth control,” a term only antichoice activists (and the occasional Catholic scholar) are likely to understand, but which denotes the assertion, against the strong consensus of medical and scientific belief, that IUDs and Plan B contraception (required under the Obamacare contraception coverage mandate, which is the main subject of the ad) terminate an existing pregnancy rather than preventing one. There’s a brief allusion to the central “constitutional conservative” argument that the Declaration of Independence incorporates into the Constitution the idea that government must “protect life” as defined by conservative Christians. There’s a sharp divide drawn between “real Americans” (who are fighting abortion) and “Washington elites” with a different “world view.” And there’s the usual apocalyptic language about “the Obamacare regime” being an “assault” on “religious liberty” (hear the jackboots), and the present era representing “scary times.”

None of this is terribly unusual among self-identified “true conservatives” in these “scary times,” but it’s worth noting Sasse isn’t some random dude with a car dealership who developed a hankering for public office. During the Bush administration, he spent a year as chief of staff of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy (sometimes referred to as DOJ’s “internal think tank”) and then another year as an Assistant Secretary of HHS for Planning and Evaluation, another policy job. If his background is any indication (his first big gig after a stint with the Boston Consulting Group was as executive director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a neo-Calvinist conservative religious group), I don’t think Sasse’s foot-soldier-of-the-RTL-movement persona is a recent development.

I mention all this to note that Sasse is typical of a new breed of True Believer that is focused on achieving political power to promote a “world-view” that in fact a sizable majority “real Americans” would consider exotic—maybe even “elitist”—but not terribly congenial to their mild-mannered moderate ways of thinking about issues like abortion, much less the Constitution and related matters. He’s certainly within his rights to do that, I actually appreciate the candor with which he expresses his RTL radicalism in the video. But what really bugs me is that it’s by no means why he’s an “insurgent” candidate for the Senate—that would be because he’s gone out of his way to antagonize Mitch McConnell and back Ted Cruz over the GOP’s handling of the government shutdown. If Sasse hadn’t done that and had waited in line behind better known GOP pols before running for the Senate, I’m quite sure the views he expressed on that video wouldn’t be a problem at all for the Republican Establishment.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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