Political Hay

Down the Hatch

There goes Orrin Hatch again, provoking splits among conservatives.

By 4.5.04

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WASHINGTON -- The year was 1976. Ronald Reagan had lost the GOP's presidential nomination to Gerald Ford. The prospects for conservative victories in Congress were not very promising. But I was sure I had found a rising star. He was articulate. He was charismatic. He claimed to be a principled conservative. I thought of him as a potential presidential candidate.

As chairman of the Free Congress PAC, I backed him at the state convention. (In his state you have to get a certain percentage of the convention vote to get on the ballot.) We backed him in the primary, which he won convincingly. And we backed him in the general election when he became one of several western Republicans to defeat Democrat incumbents that year.

Two of my friends, however, did not share my enthusiasm.

Gordon Jones, a Utah native who had backed a rival for the Senate, warned me "you will find out that he is not what you think he is." And Dick Scaife of Pittsburgh told me: "He is originally from Pittsburgh. He was the lawyer for some of the most unsavory characters ever to have infected our city. You are making a mistake. He is no principled conservative."

Although both these men have been longtime friends and have never misled me, I proceeded to disregard what they told me. It is time to say once and for all: Gordon and Dick were dead right.

The "he" Gordon Jones and Dick Scaife were referring to was Orrin Hatch. Never has anyone with so much potential produced so little. The other day at a lunch in the Majority Leader's office, the Senator from Utah lectured me on how unproductive it is to say unflattering things about him. But over these many years I have found that only when Senator Hatch has had to face public comments about his behavior will he respond and make at least half-corrections.

BEFORE HE WAS EVEN SWORN in Hatch attended a meeting of conservatives in Chicago hosted by The Conservative Caucus. He was welcomed as a conquering hero. But his words were disappointing. Later, he and I appeared on an evening program on WGN radio in Chicago. He didn't want to be called a conservative, he told the host.

It went downhill from there. In his first term in office the issue of Labor Law Reform came up. Hatch wanted to compromise when no compromise was warranted. Reed Larson and I went to see Hatch to read him the riot act. He became so angry he stormed out of his own office, leaving us sitting there incredulously. But he returned to the reservation.

Then in 1982, Roger Stone, one of the least desirable characters I have ever encountered in Washington politics, wrote a memo at the request of Hatch. Stone said in that memo that Hatch had the right sown up. What he needed to do, Stone argued, was to move left.

Later that year Hatch seemed to be taking Stone's advice. He split the pro-life movement. From 1974 on, following the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision the year earlier, the pro-life movement had rallied around a constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) in the House and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) in the Senate. But by coming up with an amendment of his own, Hatch caused people and groups to take up sides against each other. The movement never fully recovered from that split.

The reason I raise this now ancient history is that Hatch is at it again. The vast majority of pro-family groups are supporting the constitutional amendment affirming that marriage is between one man and one woman sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) in the House and Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) in the Senate.

Hatch is now pushing an amendment of his own which, if brought forward, will again split the movement and will have the effect of guaranteeing no action at all. (I well recall James Baker, then White House Chief of Staff under President Reagan, telling me when I pressed him for more action on the Right to Life issue: "When you people get your act together and are united, we'll act, but not before.") The Hatch amendment this time would basically leave the issue of so-called "gay" marriage to state legislatures. Granted it would forbid court decisions à la Massachusetts but it would virtually guarantee a patchwork of different laws that would hardly lead to a national consensus.

HATCH SAYS HE HAS BEEN pushing his amendment because the Musgrave-Allard amendment can't make it. Indeed, he says it would be defeated in the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) won't vote for it, even "with prejudice." (The phrase "with prejudice" means that although the Senator has voted to report legislation out of committee and to the floor of the full Senate for consideration, he reserves the right to cast a negative vote against the very same legislation when the full Senate votes on it.)

But the pro-family groups have yet to crank up in support of the Musgrave-Allard Amendment. And knowing that the committee chairman has a rival amendment, many senators will be reluctant to oppose him. Hatch plays hardball, especially with fellow Republicans who cross him.

Hatch has become a favorite of Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D- MA). He thinks he has made great progress in getting them to compromise. Hatch's conservative colleagues believe that the compromise has been nearly always in Kennedy's direction.

For years, Hatch harbored the illusion that he might be placed on the Supreme Court. Alas, those days have passed. When I asked a key White House staff member of Bush '43 if Hatch would, at age 67, still be considered for the high court should there be a vacancy on the grounds that he is one Republican the Democrats wouldn't filibuster, the gentleman in question couldn't contain himself with laughter. He suggested facetiously that Kennedy would be considered first.

AND ALTHOUGH REAGAN ran for President at age 70, Hatch will be 74 by the time 2008 comes around. Hatch's time here has passed as well. So what is all this penchant for compromise about? Two things. Hatch wants to be loved by his enemies more than almost any Senator I have ever encountered in 38 years here. And second: His legacy. Hatch wants to be remembered as a great legislator.

On the first point, Hatch's enemies don't love him for his compromises. They have utter contempt for him. And unfortunately for him, he has made other enemies on the right in the process. And as for legacy, senators with principles on both sides are remembered in the country, they're just not admired. What real compromiser has a monument in this city?

Senator Hatch says that, despite the terrible things I write about him, he still loves me and prays for me. Well, Senator, I love you too. That is why I tell the truth about you. As long as you are alive, there is always time to change your ways.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.