27 years ago I walked up the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. as part of a group of Explorer Scouts from Utah. There we met with Senators Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch. I don’t remember much of what they said, but I do remember being impressed at having the opportunity to shake hands with two very powerful politicians.
Fast-forward 27 years. Jake Garn has long since retired from the Senate, but Orrin Hatch is still there. He is preparing to run for another term in that office. By the end of that term he would have served in the Senate 36 years. Is he angling to become the next Robert Byrd or Strom Thurmond? Career politicians always say the same things when they run for re-election. They need our support so that they can continue their important work, they have unfinished business, etc.
Blogger Mark Towner at Utah Politics wrote, “On Saturday at the Salt Lake County convention [Senator Hatch] asked us for 6 more years to accomplish what he has not been able to accomplish in the past 30, is that likely?” He suggests that Senator Hatch’s arguments against Senator Frank Moss 30 years ago are more than applicable to Hatch today. He has served well, but he’s out of touch with the average Utahan. It’s time for him to retire and time for some new blood. Moss then. Hatch now.
Towner notes that Newt Gingrich eloquently stated (in the heat of a climate that clamored for term limits) that the longer one breathes the rarified air inside the D.C. beltway, the more one becomes co-opted into the bureaucracies against which they once campaigned. They become attuned to the realities of political deals and compromises. I think it goes further than that. They begin to feel that the preservation of liberty-inhibiting institutions is actually the best way to serve their constituents.
Like universities, power in the Senate derives from tenure. The more senior one becomes the more power one wields. Thanks to the kerfuffle with Arlen Spector (R-PA) becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after the last elections, much has been said and written both pro and con about the Senate’s seniority system. Regardless of how we feel about that system, there is little chance that it will change because it provides predictability and stability, and it is the major factor upon which senators (who would have to vote to change the rules) base their careers.
Since the senatorial equation seniority = power is here to stay for now, Utah is best represented by having the most senior senators possible, right? I mean, if seniority is everything in the Senate, Utah would be best served by sending Hatch back for another term, right?
Towner would say that’s wrong. He says, “Senator Hatch is conflicted. Too many deals and too many years in Washington make it impossible for him to actually do what he knows to be right, but instead goes along with what will pass in the Senate.” In other words, what good does seniority do if the views of the constituency are being poorly represented? While seniority is the most important thing to a senator, it is not the primary consideration for a voter, whose first priority is how his or her concerns are being addressed.
Seniority-is-everything ideologues that argue for keeping Hatch are short sighted. Towner points out a likely scenario where Senators Bennett and Hatch will retire in 2010 and 2012 respectively, leaving Utah with two freshman senators. He notes that given the average age in the Senate (and therefore the impending retirements there), Utah would be best served by sending a freshman senator now to begin gaining status for a potential leadership position instead of being left doubly low on the totem pole down the road. Towner suggests that if Orrin were more interested in Utah than in his own career he would retire next year.
Is there a possibility that Utah won’t re-elect Senator Hatch? I don’t think so unless he miraculously steps aside. If you survey Hatch’s fundraising and behind the scenes preparation you can see that he’s fully prepared to mount a serious campaign. He’s not thinking at all about retiring soon.
Many have argued that Hatch won 29 years ago because Senator Moss underestimated his young punk challenger, and that another young challenger could do the same to Hatch next year. I think, however, that Senator Moss failed to appreciate the change in Utah’s political landscape that took place during his tenure in the Senate. Utahans fled the Democratic Party in droves during the 60s and 70s as the party allowed itself to be taken over by secular extremists that challenged traditional morality. When Hatch argued that Moss was out of touch, it was easy for Utahans to see how Moss’ party had lost touch with their values. When Hatch offered an alternative, it was easy to dump Moss because of his party affiliation.
During Hatch’s almost three decades in the Senate, Utah has become more Republican. Hatch has several factors in his favor including being Republican, incumbency (with all of its associated benefits), being active in the LDS Church, and having a weak Democratic party that is unable to offer a viable opponent. It’s not like Moss who was facing a candidate from an ascending Republican Party.
Hatch is working to fend off any serious challenge from within the Republican Party. Any serious candidate needs to be doing a lot of heavy lifting now to prepare for a campaign next year. Is there anyone out there doing that? Are there any major financiers out there helping to mount a campaign against Hatch? Can anyone wrest the party’s commitments and resources from Hatch?
It’s not that Utah lacks viable potential senators; it’s just that Hatch is working to clear and prepare the field so he can reap a bountiful harvest come fall 2006. I think Hatch would have to do something degrading or suffer a serious decline in health for someone to have a chance of bringing him down. Let’s face it, Utahans know and understand Orrin Hatch’s style. Many respect him and few think that he merits dumping, even if he is getting somewhat out of touch with his base. He has become a human institution of sorts.
My personal preference would be to elect a new senator to replace Hatch next year. Is that likely to happen? Probably not, but I’d be happy to take a look at anyone willing to give it a serious try.