Politicians often like to use sports analogies when describing big obstacles they’ve faced or legislative hurdles they’ve overcome.
This week, Sen. Orrin Hatch turned to boxing, a sport he once played when he was young, to announce he was finally ready to “hang up the gloves” and retire. It’s a refrain he returned to Wednesday when asked if he had any second thoughts about his decision.
“I feel calm and relaxed — though it was a tough decision,” Hatch said by phone. “Because I know what I can do, and I’ve had most all my colleagues, including even Democrats, say ‘Don’t do this.’ But I think it’s the right thing to do, so I’m gonna hang ‘em up.”
David Magleby, a professor of political science at BYU, told RadioWest that Hatch had always extended a fighting mentality to his political career.
“That’s the mentality that he took with him to Washington in ‘77, and he was seen as a kind of scrappy, upstart conservative, who especially targeted organized labor,” said Magleby.
He said that softened somewhat as he grew more comfortable in Washington and learned how to work across the aisle with Democratic colleagues.
“What he’s done that distinguishes his career, I think, from the current upstarts that are somewhat in that early mode of Hatch is he found a way to work with Democrats on many different pieces of legislation.”
That bipartisanship led to some of his biggest legislative accomplishments during the ‘90s. This includes the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Hatch-Waxman Act that helped bring more generic drugs to market, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which he co-authored with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Hatch said he’d like to get CHIP reauthorized before he leaves. The program, which provides health care to 9 million low-income kids, is just the latest victim to a divided Washington that Hatch had once so deftly navigated.
Even without Democrats, the conservative senator has continued to push through laws. Most recently, a sweeping overhaul of the tax code, with a dramatic corporate tax cut, passed along party lines last month. The tax bill had been an end goal for the 83-year-old chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and may have helped solidify his decision to retire.
“I think both his supporters and his opponents would have to admit he was a very effective legislator, and the numbers don’t lie,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. She served as an intern and a page for Hatch during college.
“He’s passed more legislation than any other sitting member of the Senate, and part of that is because he’s been there for many years, but part of that is also because he understands the system. And because he is willing to work with his party and with people in the other party,” she said.
That also came in handy on the judiciary committee, which Hatch steered for part of his tenure. It was there he oversaw or participated in the confirmation hearings for every current sitting member of the Supreme Court.
“There were many controversial or disputed nominees over time," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "And I think what he always tried to do is find some middle ground, to find a way to resolve disputes in a way that everybody could move forward.”
Tobias says Hatch has profoundly reshaped the judiciary both nationally and in Utah.
“He has basically been responsible for something like 75 percent of all the federal judges in history who served in Utah,” he said.
But not everyone believes Hatch will get a spot-free legacy.
George Pyle, opinion editor for the Salt Lake Tribune, penned a biting editorial last month stating Hatch had served too long and become too power hungry. He was particularly critical of Hatch’s blossoming bromance with President Donald Trump, who Hatch recently called the best president he’s ever served under.
“He should be stridently independent of the White House, regardless of which party is in,” said Pyle, “and I know the founders would be aghast at how partisanship has replaced institution loyalty.”
There’s no doubt Hatch is ending his career at the pinnacle of power. Hatch plans to shift his attention to his family, especially his wife of 60 years, Elaine. He’ll also stay active in public life and raise money for his foundation.
Lesser known is Hatch’s musical legacy. He’s composed hundreds of holiday and Christian songs, including one for Hanukkah.
“I do remember... the staff would gather around and there would be a CD and we would listen to the new song and I think it’s a tradition that he just loves,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti.
Hatch said he thinks he’ll have more time for songwriting or even a whole album in his retirement. He could even write one about boxing.