After 41 years in the U.S. Senate — a blink really — Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is retiring at the age of 83. He ran on term limits in 1976, zinging his opponent with, “What do you call a Senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.” Now a government career older than the Seattle Mariners comes to a close. Sometimes they’re gone before you know it.
Goodness knows what Hatch will do now. But what is even less certain is what the Republican Party will do without him and over two dozen peers; he’s not taking the sunset trip alone.
Although “shepherding the GOP tax reform bill through the Senate” already represents an ignoble enough swan song to close a career, Hatch’s reason for leaving might be even less dignified than that. Polls show 75 percent of Utahns don’t want him to run again, perhaps because of his 2012 pledge not to seek another term.
For starters, Hatch spent the last year being just about the best friend someone like President Donald Trump can have outside of a mirror. From his position on the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch… well, we can’t say for certain everything Hatch did because the tax bill was drafted, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
While Utah is a conservative state, Mormon voters showed their displeasure with Trump in 2016 and his polling numbers among conservatives in the state remain among the lowest in the states the president carried. Combine the number of voters who simply don’t want Hatch to run again with Trump disgust and the Virginia Democratic wave that spooked House Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) into announcing his retirement just days later, and there’s even less reason for Hatch to try to stick around. (That is especially true when the backlash against Trump shows no sign of diminishing as the presidential “my nuke button is bigger” tweets continue roll in.)
Then of course there are the legacy reasons, some of which become clearer when viewed in the light of soon-to-be vacated House seats. For every representative who doesn’t want to end decades of service with a straight-up loss, there are representatives like Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, whose safely Republican districts will push them further to the right to win primaries, before they’ll having to manage the thorny issue of the president in a general election.
Legacy is a funny thing. It’s a broad enough excuse to paper over all manner of sins, but sometimes it’s true. Sometimes you’ve accomplished enough that the only thing left to you is manage your image.
In Hatch’s case, we are due for a few weeks of weepy encomia before he disappears into some shy retirement of fly-fishing, horse sculpture or seven-figure lobbying for a Qatari who likes building arenas and shooting ostriches with the new 344mm Lepage Glue Gun.
You will hear about how he was friends with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy: he once wrote him a song and they co-sponsored the Children’s Heath Insurance Program (CHIP) bill. Or you’ll read about how Hatch, by his own account, suggested the names Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Bill Clinton as likely to sail through Senate confirmation on the way to the Supreme Court. Or about how he co-sponsored Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) DREAM act in 2001.
The most recent of those niceties was 16 years ago: CHIP is still in peril, and any judicial goodwill engendered by the 1990s has been wiped away by Hatch’s enthusiastic abetting of the railroading of Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and the rubber-stamping of every blatantlyunqualified Trump administration nominee suggested by the Federalist Society. In 30 years, some of those judges will be on their third decade on the bench and their sixth of learning to tie a shoe.
That is Hatch’s legacy; that is the legacy of all the two-dozen-plus Republicans hitting the silk as Trump augurs the plane into the ground. That is the big thing that Republican Party supported Trump in order to accomplish: to tax the working and middle class and try to bleed safety net programs dry so they can kick over a trillion dollars up the chain to the wealthiest people in the world, all while rubber-stamping jurists who will roll back judicial activism against reasonable employers who just want to irradiate workers’ gonads without cumbersome government regulation because raising children eats into their employees’ 18-hour workday.
Having fulfilled their economic mandate from their donor-class masters, there is nothing left for Republicans like Hatch to do but get dragged rightward in some crass culture-war primary, clumsily expound on their fondness for the private charms of the man accused of sexual misconduct in the Oval Office and potentially go out as a loser anyway, despised by the mob whose hatred they thought they could manage forever.
Better to let another generation of leaders inherit that, in the hopes that the naked social malice and incompetent grandiosity of the new generation of Trump conservatives leads history to blame them, rather than their Republican predecessors who engineered this newest morning in America. Let the white hoods and the jackboots march in some other, less savvy representative’s funeral cortège.
Oligarchy and corporatism have been serviced; the job, the only job that ever mattered, has been done. The only constituency left to placate — the voting bloc that makes this all possible, energized by xenophobia, misongyny, racial hatred and gender discrimination — is the one to keep at least at arm’s length, even if that distance can only be created by walking away.
There’s an “ism” that describes that kind of society, and no one, least of all Orrin Hatch and his departing Republican colleagues wants their name attached to it. Even if they built it.
Which they did.
Jeb Lund is a former political columnist and reporter for Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He has a podcast called This Week In Atrocity.