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Utah's Orrin Hatch to exit stage right

As Orrin Hatch announces his retirement, it's worth appreciating his career as a bellwether of sorts: as GOP politics moved sharply to the right, so did he.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.

When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was running for a seventh term, he assured voters his 42nd year on Capitol Hill would be his last. That said. over the last year or so -- often at Donald Trump's urging -- the Utah Republican publicly flirted with the possibility of going back on his word.

As it turns out, Hatch is reverting to his original plan.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of his term this year, ending months of speculation about the political future of the longest-serving Republican in the Senate."Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me that time is soon approaching," Hatch, a former amateur boxer, said in a video posted online. "That's why, after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I've decided to retire at the end of this term."

To be sure, Hatch has seen, and been an important part of, all kinds of major political developments over the course of his four decades in Congress. In fact, though it's discouraging to consider in detail, I think his career trajectory is a bellwether of sorts: Hatch used to be a real senator, interested in meaningful and constructive results. But as the Republican Party moved radically to the right, so did he.

When I first started following national politics closely in high school, I remember seeing Hatch as a serious lawmaker. He used to brag about being a "square peg" -- a label he embraced as a shorthand to say he'd occasionally break with partisan orthodoxy -- and for parts of his long tenure, it was true. The Utah Republican used to actually see value in cooperating with people with whom he disagreed, working with Democrats, for example, on stem-cell research, the DREAM Act, and the original S-CHIP.

But as GOP politics moved sharply to the right, and Utah cemented its reputation as one of the nation's "reddest" states, Hatch shed his pragmatic posture and became a rather predictable and cantankerous partisan. The senator who once stressed the importance of respect and decorum decided to start calling his colleagues "idiots" and "dumbass liberals."

The Utahan who saw himself as a statesman linked arms with the likes of Donald Trump, whom Hatch recently hailed as a historically great leader, en route to possibly having the greatest presidency ever.

And by all appearances, he wasn't kidding.

The Hatch from the not-too-distant past wouldn't have rammed through an overhaul of the federal tax code without so much as a substantive hearing, or approved an overhaul of the American health care system the same way, or prioritized corporate tax cuts over children's health care, or blocked a Supreme Court nominee for a year despite personally recommending him, or carelessly tried to politicize Memorial Day, but therein lies the point: as contemporary Republican politics deteriorated, so too did Hatch's willingness to govern responsibly.

The sad truth is, Orrin Hatch could've had a great senatorial legacy. It's a shame he passed up that opportunity.