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The mock bravery of the Senate Eye Roll Club

Why secret Trump dissenters like Cornyn and Sasse only have themselves to blame

Over the weekend, Axios breathlessly reported, “President Trump’s team is telling him ahead of Thursday’s final debate: Stop interrupting Joe Biden. And try to be more likable.” In similar fashion, Trump aide Jason Miller told Fox News Sunday that the president would give Biden “a little more room to explain himself” during the upcoming debate.

The naive innocence of these sentiments is touching. This is politics as imagined by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or other gooey children’s book heroines. Imagine the sheltered upbringing needed to believe that Donald J. Trump will ever change.

At 74 years of age, facing the last debate of his “upward failure” political career, Trump is somehow expected by his browbeaten aides to suddenly become “likable.” And this miraculous transformation would be achieved without any debate preparation beyond his usual vitriolic rants at super-spreader rallies.

Imperiled Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn offered a more realistic — albeit highly cynical — assessment of Trump late last week in an endorsement interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Comparing Trump to a wayward husband, Cornyn noted that “a lot of women … get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.” Free advice to Cornyn: Marital examples may not be politically wise when describing a thrice-wed president.

Digging himself deeper, Cornyn insisted that he had bravely expressed his differences with the president by talking “privately” with people like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. This had all the policy impact of two guys on adjoining barstools lamenting the failures of their local football team.

Justifying his ineffectuality, Cornyn added, “I think what we found is that we’re not going to change President Trump. He is who he is. You either love him or hate him, and there’s not much in between.”

Profiles in courage

Imagine if the Senate had taken a similar passive approach to prior presidents. Democrats in 1937 might have said, “FDR isn’t going to change, so we might as well pack the Supreme Court.” Or Republicans might have concluded, “Nixon isn’t going to change, so let’s shove Watergate under the rug.”

All this brings us to Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. Instead of offering a full profile in courage, he grants us stray gutsy sentences separated by months of painful silence. Coasting to reelection, Sasse allowed himself a bit of truth-telling on a conference call with constituents, according to audio clips obtained by the Washington Examiner.

Sasse’s wide-ranging bill of indictment of the president sounded like an attack ad from the “Never Trump” Lincoln Project. As Sasse put it, “The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. … He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”

Trump, obviously practicing how to become likable, responded in predictable fashion. In a series of weekend tweets, he typed, “Little Ben is a liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska.”

Guess what happened to Sasse after he endured a Trump tweet, the only “cruel and unusual” punishment permitted under the Constitution? Absolutely nothing. Sasse, cruising to reelection, will be senator from Nebraska until early 2027.

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Sasse and Cornyn, if he survives an unexpectedly tight reelection campaign, are likely to find themselves in the minority in the next Senate. And that means that in terms of staffing, influence and control of the floor agenda, life is about to get bleak for GOP senators.

Missed opportunities

It is probably too late to affect the outcome on Nov. 3, but Cornyn and Sasse might take a few minutes to think of all the ways that the looming GOP congressional defeat was preventable.

Remember that the 2018 Senate map offered the most one-sided political terrain in memory with 26 Democratic seats (counting independents) and just 9 GOP seats on the ballot. And, yet, the Republicans netted just a two-seat gain, setting up the expected Democratic comeback this November.

In a rational political world, the GOP would have run in 2018 on the buoyant economy and the 2017 tax cuts.

But congressional Republicans, terrified by Trump tweets, allowed the midterm elections to become a referendum on the White House. So if there was an issue defining the last election, it was the phantom caravans of supposedly violent immigrants approaching the border rather than the economy.

Even when the pandemic hit, Senate Republicans refused to abandon their public fealty to Trump. Rather than speaking out about the president’s self-destructive response to COVID-19, Mitch McConnell instead quietly avoided going to the White House for two months because he worried about his personal health.

If the polls hold up, the Republicans are due for a brutal reckoning in November. Instead of medals for heroic resistance, secret dissenters like Cornyn and Sasse will be eligible for their own special honor, membership in the Order of the Eye Roll.

Every time Trump was mentioned in private, these courageous Republicans rolled their eyes and made anguished faces. Sometimes, they whispered words of dissent as long as they were certain their words weren’t audible.

(For the record, these responses were even more timorous than the furrowed brow that Susan Collins made famous as her public response to Trump).

Like almost all inept would-be authoritarians, Trump seems headed for defeat, leaving in shambles the republic and the Republican Party. But, at least, Cornyn and Sasse can comfort themselves at the annual reunions of the Eye Roll Club.

Walter Shapiro is covering his 11th presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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