Former Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson talks about Trump, partisanship and why he left politics

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It's been 13 years since Ben Nelson was reelected to the Senate, romping to a second-term victory over a Republican newcomer named Pete Ricketts in 2006.

The former Democratic senator — and former two-term governor — won that contest by 164,000 votes, and it marked the sixth Democratic victory in the past eight Senate elections in Nebraska at the time.

Times have changed.

Nelson's 2006 win was the last big statewide victory for a Democratic nominee in Nebraska — and it hasn't even been close since. Republicans have racked up victory margins ranging from 97,000 to 233,000 votes in contests for governor or U.S. Senate since Nelson left the statewide ballot.

And Ricketts is now completing the first year of his second four-year gubernatorial term after handily winning reelection in 2018.

Nelson is back home in Omaha, busy, engaged and visibly contented.

He recently was named the CEO of Florida-based Insurance Care Direct, one of the nation's largest health and life insurance agencies, and he's an attorney in the Lamson Dugan & Murray law firm headquartered on Regency Parkway Drive not far from his home.

And he's writing a book about the Senate and his time there. 

His publisher wants it on the market in 2020 in the midst of an electric presidential election year. 

* * *

In 2009, on the day before Christmas, Nelson was thrust into the national spotlight when he cast the deciding 60th vote to free President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, from a Senate filibuster after negotiating an amendment that would be favorable to Nebraska.

Nelson ultimately asked that the special provision be removed and voted against enactment of a revised bill.

But he has more to write about than just that time of high-stakes drama, which thrust him into the national spotlight as a Senate negotiator and gave birth to the memorable description of his amendment as the Cornhusker Kickback.

That was the storyline promoted by Republican opponents of the health care reform legislation, and it stuck.

Nelson has a much broader storyline in mind for his book.

Ben Nelson

Ben Nelson pets his golden retriever Angel during an interview in his Omaha home.

"This is a story about when the Senate worked, when bipartisan was real, not just ballyhooed," he said as he settled into a chair in his comfortable Omaha home with Angel and Tazzie, the two family dogs, eagerly joining the conversation. 

The possible, perhaps even probable, title of the book is "When the Lions Roared."

And here's a chapter title that he could not resist in the age of Trump: "The Heart of the Deal."

President Donald Trump, of course, famously co-authored a book titled "The Art of the Deal" a couple of decades ago. 

During a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Trump took note of Nelson's Obamacare negotiation skills: "They owned the state of Nebraska," the president said. "Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?"

Well known for a deft turn of phrase, Nelson has another in mind.

When negotiating across the aisle in the Senate, at least at the time he was there, Nelson said, "You didn't have to verify, just trust."

And that would be shades of Ronald Reagan, 1984 and later during nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify," spoken by Reagan in broken Russian words that made Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev laugh.   

A handshake isn't enough in the Senate today, Nelson said.

* * *

"I saw the changes and that was the main reason I didn't seek a third term," he said.

As part of reaching a decision about whether to be a candidate for reelection in 2012, Nelson commissioned a poll by Harrison Hickman, then sat down with the pollster for a summation of what he had found.

"Your brand has fallen," Nelson said Hickman told him. "But you're gonna win. Your opposition is going to be louder and maybe a bit more determined."

Nelson said he took the question of whether to seek a third term to a family gathering, acknowledging during the discussion that "I think I'll be frustrated" in what was destined to be a much more partisan Senate, far less open to bipartisan cooperation.   

"My political math always has been addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division," he said. 

"And I didn't see a place for bipartisan deals."

Nelson said son Pat spoke up, suggesting that "if it's 50-50, I'd like to spend more time with you."

"That was a game-changer," Nelson said. He would not run.

* * *

Life is good.

Nelson is busy, but there's time at home with Diane, the former first lady, with meals outside on the patio and some weekends at his recently expanded cabin overlooking the Platte River.

The cabin offers a peaceful, picturesque retreat with animals on the property and Nebraska's most storied river visible down below. 

Although the insurance business is headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, Nelson can do much of the work from Nebraska, describing his position as "a virtual job" that can be largely performed online.

Nelson lost just once, in 1996 to Chuck Hagel when Nelson attempted to move to the Senate midway through his second term as governor, but he won an open Senate seat four years later and no other Democrat has prevailed in a statewide race in Nebraska in the last 19 years. 

Or even come close.

Nebraska, once multicolored politically, has turned dependably red in statewide terms, but is far more divided between rural Republican and urban Democratic today.

In 2018, voters in Omaha and Lincoln favored Democratic challengers over Republican incumbents in the contests for governor, U.S. Senate and the Omaha and Lincoln seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while all four incumbents in those races won reelection.

* * *

It wasn't easy for Nelson at the beginning when his public service resume was state insurance director and when he, in his own words, was "a household name in only one household in Nebraska."

Nelson won the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial nomination by a scant 43 votes, and that came only after two recounts, and then he edged Republican Gov. Kay Orr by 4,030 votes.

Once in office, he steadily built a growing reservoir of support blended with a nonpartisan flavor.

"The theme was One Nebraska," Nelson said. "Bring people together. Unite rather than divide. It's hard to get anything done when you're divided."

Four years later, he was reelected in a landslide, garnering 74% of the vote.

Midway through his second gubernatorial term, in 1996, Nelson made a bid to move to the U.S. Senate and experienced his only loss to Republican nominee Hagel. 

Four years later, he won a Senate seat.

* * *

In the Senate, Nelson worked both sides of the aisle, forging partnerships with a number of Republican senators on some issues, gaining a reputation as a negotiator and a deal-maker.

And he sent federal money home to help fund Nebraska projects until the congressional earmark process was seized by Republicans as a political issue and was ended following a few examples of abuse of the system, most notably earmarked federal funding for what became known as "the bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

"The loss of earmarks hurts Nebraska," Nelson said. "And it hurts the ability for bipartisan work.

"It was a facilitator and it represented less than one-half of 1% of the budget."

Local government leaders stressed the needs that were important to them, Nelson said. And the ensuing process helped develop working relationships with the House, the Senate, state senators and mayors, he said. 

Earmarks helped fund "some exceptional ideas," Nelson said.

Projects at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Networking StratCom with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

And helping fund community projects throughout the state.

Nelson was zeroing in on funding to locate a new U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility on Nebraska Innovation Campus, a project that would have jump-started UNL's new research campus and undergird its future, when earmarks came to an end.

* * *

The Senate has changed, Nelson said.

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"A toxic atmosphere has developed," he said.

"Along came the Tea Party and they were dividers; they turned primary into a verb."

In a hyperpartisan environment, a bipartisan deal is difficult to achieve today, he said.

"It was always anticipated that the Affordable Care Act would get bipartisan support to improve it after some experience with it," Nelson said.

Not in the new Congress where partisan division stands in the way. 

That kind of partisan division is also reflected now in current Nebraska voting patterns, Nelson said.

"Division is creating a solid base of voters who won't stray or cross over," he said. Democrats who used to win in Nebraska always picked up Republican votes along the way.

A changing news media environment, perhaps especially the rise of cable TV news channels that promote political viewpoints, has had an impact, Nelson said.

In Nebraska, Fox News is on TV screens in restaurants and coffee shops across the state.

"Fox is 'the loudest voice' as Roger Ailes always wanted," Nelson said.  

"Ailes said we'll have all the conservatives and the others can divide the rest, and that's basically what happened."

The partisan nature of new media outlets has had an impact, Nelson said.

"One would think that Trump's trade policies would get agriculture to turn around and go the other way," he said. 

"And why are so many people who are opposed to federal spending so quiet now?"

* * *

The judiciary is a concern today, Nelson said, "and that's everybody's fault."

Too often now, he said, "the Supreme Court legislates through the bench and everyone's to blame for that."

In filling the two most recent vacancies on the court, "the president sought two totally conservative judges, not for the good of the country," Nelson said, but to pursue a predictable outcome and satisfy his political base.

"We need the best judicial minds, judges with great credentials," Nelson said. Judges who respect stare decisis (judicial precedent), not judges who get on the bench to legislate."

* * *

"President Trump's greatest achievement is that he has divided the country," Nelson said.

"I don't know him. I don't know how many more years we can tolerate this; it means you can't come together."

In 2008, Nelson chose to support Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"He was the person I felt could bring people together, somebody I could work with," Nelson said.  

Now, he supports former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

"I think Biden has a very balanced approach to whatever he does, and I think he is capable of uniting the country. He fits closer to my mold, although maybe not as right-center as I am on some issues."

The best government "does not lurch to the left or the right," Nelson said, "or carry out dogma."

Some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are "farther left than anybody would ever call me," Nelson said. 

"I always asked how much things cost," he said.

"Rhetorical calls for socialism are like stepping into a bear track."

Photos: Ben Nelson's career

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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