Election 2020

Trump-Critic Senator at CPAC: Nominee Must Be 'Champion of Greatness of Americans'

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) speaks at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 3, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

The first senator to declare publicly that he will never vote for Donald Trump urged attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference to nominate “not just someone who wants to breathe fire on Washington” but a leader who will breathe life into “constitutional recovery.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) did not mention Trump or any other candidates by name in an address that largely focused on the freshman senator’s definition of conservatism.

He called himself a “happy Republican,” a “principled conservative.”

“I urge you all to be Republican, conservative, American — but it’s very important how we rank order these things,” Sasse said, as the senator who has declared that he’d break with his party over backing a Trump nomination said on that list he’s “only a Republican third.”

“If we get them out of order, we sometimes wage war against them,” he said.

Sasse said “it’s been a bad seven years for the Republican Party, it’s been a bad seven years for conservatives, it’s been a bad seven years for those who cherish, love the American idea” with President Obama’s quest to “fundamentally remake America.”

The senator added that “if politics is all you have in your life, you don’t understand America” because the role of government is to get out of the way and leave people free to pursue happiness. “The meaning of America is not in Washington, D.C.”

Sasse said he didn’t come to the conference to talk about any of the presidential candidates, “but in a time of constitutional crisis” he had to make some points.

He urged voters to look at candidates and ask if “they, like Reagan, believe in limited government.”

“Do they believe in equality under the law, every race, every creed?” Sasse said. “Do we believe that fatherless black boys in the inner city will feel invited into the Republican Party” based on the GOP principles, and does a candidate believe in the “beating heart of the American creed, which is the First Amendment?” Sasse has been highly critical of Trump’s stated desire to “open up” libel laws to more easily sue journalists.

Will the nominee, Sasse asked, be “a champion of the greatness of Americans, not the greatness of Washington, D.C.” or a champion of the greatness of candidates?

“Do you hear a champion not of tearing more things down but building America up?” he added.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) focused on the working-class frustration and anger that’s been driving this electoral cycle.

“They’ve been putting their faith in the conservative movement, they’ve been putting their faith in the Republican Party, but they don’t see anything happening,” Santorum said.

Furthermore, he added, those voters see “unanimity of voice in the conservative movement” on issues “not necessarily in their wheelhouse.”

Santorum, who tried his own run for the White House again this year before dropping out and endorsing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chided candidates for not talking more about the “breakdown of the family” on the campaign trail.

Without mentioning Trump by name, Santorum took a dig at “someone who sounds like — I don’t think he is — sounds like he’s on their side.”

The former senator said he was not at the conference to give a speech for any candidate but to talk about where the party needs to go.

“We have an opportunity as a result of what’s happening right now,” Santorum emphasized, to “learn from that earthquake and take conservative principles and policies and adapt them.”

Though he was brought on stage to talk about populist conservatism, Santorum called that adjustment to the times Reagan conservatism.

“You provide that leadership as a movement, you won’t have to be worried anymore,” he said.

After the two senators, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was brought on stage to promote libertarian conservatism — and his own run for the White House this year.

“I am the third party,” Johnson declared, seeing momentum in those looking for another option.

“Get me in the presidential debates,” he urged the crowd. “Get the libertarian nominee for president in the presidential debates.”