Members Only | April 24, 2022 | Reading Time: 10 minutes
Orrin Hatch, champion of revanchist values and father of judicial extremism, is dead
For all his work in making the nation worse, Donald Trump presented Hatch with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that year.
He may have been known as Borin’ Orrin, but his career and positions represented some of the worst tendencies in American history.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1934, Hatch grew up in a staunchly Mormon family, with elders going back generations. He went to Brigham Young University after working in the steel mills a bit. He was a smart, ambitious guy but not one with much money at this point.
He married young and already had a big family, fulfilling his Mormon heritage, so he finished at BYU, went back to the University of Pittsburgh for law school, and actually lived in a big chicken coop with his young family behind his parents’ house.
After 42 years in the Senate, Hatch had pretty well determined not to run for another term. But that didn’t matter. He now fully believed in all of the Republican hard-right turn. After all, on most issues, he was quite responsible for that turn.
He was a history major at BYU and as a professional historian, I am ashamed of that fact. But he wouldn’t remain so for long. Once he graduated with his law degree, he got a job back out in Utah working for the oil and gas industry.
Until he ran for the Senate in 1976, Hatch was not a politically important figure. He was just a lawyer. But he thought about it and talked to some Republicans in the state. They told him that anti-Washington sentiment was growing and, who knows, maybe he could take out the Democratic senator Frank Moss.
Hatch got the endorsement of the BYU president, Ernest Wilkinson, a man so rightwing that he refused to allow economics professors there to teach Keynesianism and who refused all federal funds so there would be no state control over his institution of higher indoctrination.
So that was a big endorsement in Utah.
He was a really terrible public speaker and it was a crowded primary. He didn’t have any money. He drove around campaigning in a big van with his six children in tow. But he did have that outsider rhetoric.
He made a recording where he borrowed heavily from Barry Goldwater’s anti-establishment language in 1964, calling his fellow Republicans sellouts and effectively being a precursor of Donald Trump’s ridiculous “drain the swamp” rhetoric in 2016.
He did this in part by endorsing Ronald Reagan for the 1976 election, tapping into the rising rightwing fury against civil rights and feminism among whites. Reagan was so happy, and Hatch’s team so busy bugging Reagan’s advisors for contacts, that Ronnie called up Hatch and endorsed him, which made all the difference in Utah. He won that primary.
Hatch continued this rhetoric in the general. Frank Moss was a pretty good senator. It’s worth remembering it’s not that long ago that the rural West could elect some really fine politicians. Moss fought the tobacco industry, nursing home exploitation and expanded the power of the Federal Trade Commission, all while opposing the Vietnam War.
Quite the senator for Utah!
Alas, those days are now long behind us. Hatch ran on his outsider credentials and laughably used term limits as his tool to do so. His theme: “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.” Oh, the humor of Orrin Hatch. It worked. Sadly, Moss lost and Utah has not elected a decent statewide politician since.
Hatch the hatchet
His positions were typically revanchist culture war stuff. He promised an anti-pornography bill. He wanted to privatize Social Security. The vile Republican direct mail guru Richard Viguerie got behind Hatch and used his power to flood the Utah mail with propaganda in favor of the extremist.
When Hatch was elected, he was seen as a kind of joke. As Rick Perlstein explores in Reaganland, shortly after Hatch’s election, there was a dinner party among Long Island suburbanites that challenged guests to figure out what an “Orrin Hatch” was (sounds like the blandest possible mild New Mexico green chile to me), which led to some mildly amusing responses and the requisite Times article that effectively confirmed rural stereotypes about how urban people have contempt for them.
Hatch was just terrible. When Birch Bayh noted that anti-abortion activists only cared about life between conception and birth, Hatch actually said on the Senate floor that there was a “remarkable similarity between those who believe in abortion and those who are spending us into bankruptcy.”
What that similarity was, I have no idea, since it doesn’t make a lick of sense. But that word salad worked in Utah and among the growing powerful rightwing extremists making up the Republican Party, who thought Orrin might be interesting presidential material.
What made Hatch appealing to the New Right is that he was a hatchet man. They were sick of compromise. They wanted full-out aggression with no holds barred. That was Orrin Hatch.
Although still a first-term senator, when the AFL-CIO and Democrats pushed labor law reform in the early years of the Carter administration, it was the young Orrin Hatch chosen to be the pit bull against it. He called the business lobby when he arrived in Washington “a bunch of gutless wonders.” And he provided them the gut.
He was determined that workers would gain no rights in this nation. Worse, he succeeded in that goal, leading the way to gutting anything Democrats proposed on labor issues. What tool did he use?
Our old friend, the filibuster.
The filibuster’s history is mostly known for holding up bills that would move toward racial equality and there’s a good reason for that. But senators also used it, in the days before it became an everyday part of obstruction by the Republican Party, specifically against workers’ rights legislation. Hatch killed labor law reform. There were 59 votes for it. Such is the disaster of the world’s worst deliberative body.
Sorry, not sorry
Once he was elected, all that talk about term limits went away real fast. He was elected again and again, never seriously challenged by a Democrat. He defeated the mayor of Salt Lake City by 17 points in 1982 and then Frank Moss’ son Brian by 35 points in 1988. By this point, Utah was a full-on frothing rightwing cesspool. The state that once elected quite decent senators was now a place where Orrin Hatch could be seen as a relative moderate. He won reelection again in 1994, 2000, 2006 and 2012 without any real competition.
Hatch was a hired hack of the vitamin supplement industry. This might seem like a strange issue to be tied to. But the supplement industry is huge in Utah and Hatch had a lot of relatives involved.
So he did everything in his considerable power to protect this industry from any regulation at all, including revealing what is in them. When Hatch left the Senate, Michael Hiltzik’s farewell in the LA Times reminded us of how “his deadliest law will live on.”
This was the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Effectively, this eliminated government supervision of the supplement industry, allowing hucksters and scammers to put whatever they wanted in these things. Specifically, it stopped the Food and Drug Administration from reviewing these supplements ahead of time.
The FDA could later pull a product if it was found to be poisonous but that would come only after such poison was proven. This was a massive perversion of the entire point of the FDA and also the near-prototype for how Republicans see the world and how they want to take America back to the Gilded Age.
As Hiltzik noted, this had hugely negative consequences in the real world, such as when a supplement sold in Hawaii sent 47 people to the hospital with liver problems, resulting in three liver transplants and one death. Finally, it was pulled off the market. That’s entirely on Orrin Hatch.
Of course, Hatch’s son worked as a supplement industry lobbyist and two of the largest three campaign donors for Hatch in 2010 were Herbalife and Xango LLC, a supplement marketing firm. And when John McCain introduced a bill to mandate reports of illnesses from supplements, Hatch backed him down.
So every time you hear someone getting seriously ill or dying from supplements, you can thank Orrin Hatch.
Not as clean as you’d think
Almost every position taken by Hatch was horrible. He was the author of the vile Hatch Amendment, his idea for a constitutional amendment reading, “A right to abortion is not secured by this Constitution. The Congress and the several States shall have the concurrent power to restrict and prohibit abortions: Provided, That a law of a State which is more restrictive than a law of Congress shall govern.”
Hatch also was obsessed with a balanced budget, that hobgoblin of the little minds of our dumbest elites, and sponsored the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution on several occasions.
To his credit, Hatch did work closely with Ted Kennedy on a number of issues, the kind of bipartisanship that made Beltway reporters swoon.
That included working together on creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. And you know what, sure, he deserves credit for that. Good for him. It’s not a perfect program but at least he did something positive with his life.
It got to the point that National Review even called him a liberal. That was ridiculous, but still. That also increasingly disappeared as he got older, to the sadness of writers such as Michael Tomasky, who lamented the decline of bipartisanship this represented.
Hatch was also not as clean personally as he liked to claim.
He got caught up in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal in the early 1990s, which was a case where the bank was laundering drug money and got caught and then was shut down in 1991 for paying huge bribes to governments in the global south to get deposits in the bank. It was a classic Beltway insider job, headed by former LBJ advisor Clark Clifford, among others.
Hatch was friends with a lot of these people and had attempted to use his influence to get a $10 million loan for another friend. Hatch went off on the Senate floor against the treatment of this bank in a speech written for him by the attorney of the bank implicated in all of this.
As part of the loan for his friend, campaign contributions to Hatch were laundered. Moreover, the organization bought 1,200 CDs of Orrin Hatch singing (my God, what horror is this?) and that was another payoff for him. There was a Senate Ethics Commission investigation of this but of course Hatch got away scot-free. Gross.
Hatch’s questionable finances meant he never got what he wanted more than anything: a Supreme Court appointment. As a co-founder of the Federalist Society, as well as co-chair, he set himself up for this well. Supposedly, he was in the running to replace Lewis Powell, which was Robert Bork’s infamous nomination, but there was no way Hatch could get by the Emoluments Clause and so didn’t get the call. And hey, remember when that mattered among Republicans!
Fathering judicial extremism
In any case, Hatch could routinely be the worst during Supreme Court nominations. He was outraged that Bork didn’t get confirmed. Moreover, he was on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings, where he read from The Exorcist to “prove” that Anita Hill had stolen her (obviously false natch) sexual harassment allegations from that book.
In fact, few did more than Hatch to push the Republican Party toward extremism in the judiciary. He was a huge supporter of the nomination of Mr. Torture Memos himself, Jay Bybee, to the Ninth Circuit Court.
What is interesting, and a sign of how much politics have changed, is that Hatch, who was friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, personally lobbied Bill Clinton to choose her for the Supreme Court.
He was enough of an institutionalist to be wary of Republican decisions to nuke the filibuster on court nominees, but then was happy to go along with it and refused to support Merrick Garland in 2016. He had even once said that Garland would be a “consensus nominee” for the court. And then he stated that Garland did not deserve a nomination after Obama nominated him.
By this time, Hatch had pretty well determined not to run for another term. But that didn’t matter. He now fully believed in all of the Republican hard-right turn. After all, on most issues, he was quite responsible for that turn.
On gay rights, Hatch was as bad as one could possibly imagine, though he did moderate on this over time. In a 1977 speech at the University of Utah, Hatch stated, “I wouldn’t want to see homosexuals teaching school anymore than I’d want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school.”
Of course, you could hear plenty of Democrats saying the same thing at the time. Hatch was a huge supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act. Later in his career, he did move enough on this issue to vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have barred employers from being able to fire workers based upon their sexual orientation.
So I guess it serves to show that you work hard enough and maybe you can move the worst politicians to be slightly less bad, especially after you lay the groundwork for your party to become a cesspool of coup leaders and fascists. A lesson there, of sorts.
Rightwinger too left for rightwingers
In 2000, Hatch decided to run for president. I am not sure who was clamoring for an Orrin Hatch presidency. As it turns out, the answer was no one. After a robust 1 percent showing in Iowa, placing him behind such brilliant leaders as Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, Hatch dropped out and supported George W. Bush.
Naturally enough, the idea of Americans having a right to decent health care was an outrage to Hatch. Like a lot of Republicans, he was a total hypocrite on the issue.
Back in 1993, when Bill Clinton threatened universal health care, Hatch was one of the cosponsors of the individual insurance mandate in order to fight Democrats. So, in 2009, when Obama brought that fight back, in what led to the Affordable Care Act that integrated his own proposal sixteen years ago, Hatch now opposed it. Why, it’s almost as if Republican proposals are not made in good faith and Democrats shouldn’t copy them!
He had a lot of respect for people who held his own previous positions as well, saying in 2018 that supporters of Obamacare “the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met.” I’m not sure Jesus and Joseph Smith approved of that language, Orrin. He may be in Hell now paying for such talk.
By the end, Utah had moved so far to the extremist right that people wondered whether Hatch was vulnerable to a primary challenge.
This is pretty crazy when you think about it. There was never anyone more committed to rightwing values than Orrin Hatch.
But he wasn’t a full-on fascist when the Republican Party began to demand that in every candidate. Mike Lee had defeated Bob Bennett in 2010 and Jason Chaffetz was talking about running against Hatch. He didn’t but eight other candidates did. He had to go to a run-off primary, which is the rule in Utah if a candidate doesn’t win 60 percent of the vote. Hatch won that easily, but it was the first time he had to do that and it was a sign that Utah was getting ever scarier.
Now, Orrin Hatch was always a good Mormon. So he claimed to have family values. Do you think those family values got in the way of him supporting Donald Trump? Ha ha, of course not.
Sure, after Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Hatch stated it was “disgusting” but it wasn’t enough for him to rescind his support in the fact of having to watch Hillary Clinton become president. Anything but that!
Instead, he used Trump like all Republicans did once they found out he shared their values, such as destroying the planet. Hatch was one of the senators to sign a letter urging Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which he then did.
Hatch finally decided to not run for reelection in 2018. I doubt he would have lost a primary challenge that year, not after embracing Donald Trump so closely. He had only been in the Senate for a mere 42 years, which at the time was the longest serving Republican in Senate history, though Chuck Grassley later passed him.
For all his work in making the nation worse, Donald Trump presented Hatch with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that year.
Orrin Hatch is now dead. The nation is worse for his life. But hey, at least he had the respect of Donald Trump. What more could he want?
Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.