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Orrin Hatch is Horrible


John Nichols provides an eviscerating obituary of Orrin Hatch’s disgraceful career, focusing on the good man he kicked out of the Senate.

Hatch was elected to the Senate in 1976, after running a campaign that anticipated the crudely divisive strategies and relentless negativity that have come to characterize contemporary campaigning. Hatch was a pioneering practitioner of the new politics of shameless pretense that would come to define Washington. A Republican who had moved to Utah from Pennsylvania, he claimed that the incumbent Democratic senator, who had been born and raised in Utah, was out of touch with the values and the concerns of the state.

That was a fantasy developed by the political con artists who had the malleable newcomer run on the issue of term limits. Hatch made a joke of incumbent Frank Moss’s three terms of honorable service in the Senate: “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.” And Hatch promised not to serve for too long in Washington.

Both the slogan’s suggestion—that Moss had nothing more to contribute—and the term-limits commitment were shameless lies.

Moss was not a typical politician. He was one of the most effective public servants of the 20th century. While studying at George Washington University’s Law School in Washington, he worked during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term with the National Recovery Administration, the Resettlement Administration, and the Farm Credit Administration. After graduating, he joined the legal staff of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, serving during the period from 1937 to 1939 when it was chaired by future US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Upon his return to Utah, Moss was elected to a Salt Lake City municipal-court judgeship; but when the call of duty came with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he signed up for the US Army Air Corps, serving in Europe through much of World War II. Back home, he was again elected as a judge and then became a county prosecutor before his election to the US Senate in the Democratic wave election of 1958.

As a senator from Utah, Moss backed civil rights and women’s rights, promoted nuclear disarmament, and opposed the war in Vietnam. But what earned him praise as “the conscience of the Senate” was his advocacy for those who could not afford to hire lobbyists.

The veteran of the Roosevelt administration brought a bold New Deal vision to the Senate where he outlined an agenda that sought to expand access to health care (as an original sponsor of Medicaid legislation), to protect the environment (as a leading advocate for the creation of new national parks), and, above all, to put federal policy on the side of consumers. Moss used his position as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on consumer protection to sponsor legislation that took on the tobacco industry (sponsoring the 1966 Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act that required cigarette companies to include warnings about health threats on cigarette packages and erected barriers to tobacco advertising on radio and television), cracked down on the manufacturers of dangerous toys and poisonous products (sponsoring the Toy Safety Act and the Poison Prevention Packaging Act), and forced manufacturers to stop ripping off consumers (working with Washington State Democrat Warren Magnuson to enact the groundbreaking Consumer Product Warranty and Guarantee Act). He led investigations of elder abuse, went after irresponsible doctors, and worked with Idaho Senator Frank Church to provide federal support for hospice programs.

In other words, far from being out of touch, Moss was determined to serve people in Utah and across the country who had been victimized by corporations. Unfortunately, as the corporations and their allies learned how to influence not just the legislative but the electoral process, a space was made for the likes of Orrin Hatch—a candidate The Salt Like Tribune referred to as “an aggressive, TV-ready opponent.”

Hatch’s attack campaign prevailed in 1976 and Moss was no longer able to lead the charge on behalf of citizens and consumers, of working people and the most vulnerable Americans.

Over the next four decades, Hatch would serve as a dramatically different senator from his predecessor. Self-absorbed and boastful, Hatch calculated that his political future would be best served by aligning with those who could write big campaign checks. Hatch took care of his political benefactors and seemed always to be plotting his next move (angling for a place on the Supreme Court or on a Republican presidential ticket, elbowing his way into key committee assignments). When Democrats controlled the Senate, Hatch was ready to cut deals, even with liberals like Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. When Republicans took charge, however, he became the most shameless of partisans—as when the same senator who repeatedly savaged professor Anita Hill on behalf of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas played a critical role in blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland (whom he acknowledged was an outstanding jurist) in order to prevent President Barack Obama’s nominee from getting a place on the high court.

I’ve been in the Northwest for the last four months and have a couple of weeks left before I return to east coast exile. I am working on a broad project about the transformation of the Northwest in the last 50 years. So I’m not really looking at Utah. But I am looking at Idaho and am spending a couple weeks in Boise before heading back east later this month. One thing that’s amazing to me is that in the 70s, Idaho had these really progressive politicians such as Frank Church and Cecil Andrus. Utah had them too. How and why they became unelectable in favor of horrible people such as Hatch (or Larry Craig or Butch Otter, etc) is what I am interested in for these places. The answer, I think, is that it’s about cultural issues as part of a broader rejection of liberalism in a civil rights and environmentalist era. The rejection of liberal politics for hard-right corporate hackery is the story of Orrin Hatch. It’s disgraceful, but it also largely represents the population of states such as Utah and Idaho. Good riddance to Orrin Hatch. Let’s hope the people of the Intermountain West reject those politics of the last 30 years and reembrace a politics of generosity and respectability. But none of that is embodied in Mitt Romney.

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