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The wrong people are retiring from Congress

Policy-oriented legislators keep calling it quits

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, is just one of many policy-oriented legislators who seem fed up with Congress and are calling it quits.
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, is just one of many policy-oriented legislators who seem fed up with Congress and are calling it quits. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

During a Jan. 25, 2013, speech to the Republican National Committee, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told his GOP colleagues, “It’s time for us to articulate our plans and our visions for America in real terms. It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans that damaged the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”

Jindal almost certainly was referring to a couple of controversial Republican officeholders and candidates for higher office — Missouri Rep. Todd Akin and Indiana Senate nominee Richard Mourdock — who were widely regarded as ideologically extreme and rhetorically clumsy.

Akin got himself in trouble when he talked about “legitimate rape” during an August 2012 television interview, promising that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Mourdock said during a radio interview that “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.”

The Indiana Republican also responded to a question about rape by saying, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that’s something God intended to happen.”

Both Akin and Mourdock won their Senate primaries and were expected to win their general election races. But they lost to underdog Democrats who took advantage of the Republicans’ blunders.

Others who could be added to this “Jindal list” include Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell and Nevada Republican Sharron Angle, both of whom ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010, and former Iowa Rep. Steve King, a white nationalist who lost his primary in 2020 and was denied renomination after serving nine terms in the House.

Like Akin and Mourdock, O’Donnell, Angle and King were extremists who alienated pragmatic and moderate Republicans and turned off swing voters. But instead of being outliers, those Republicans turned out to be harbingers of things to come.

House Republicans have moved quickly and strongly to the right, embracing the most extreme positions on cultural issues (including abortion, gay and trans rights and guns) and isolationism on foreign policy and national security.

Dave Brat of Virginia (first elected in 2014), Mo Brooks of Alabama (first elected in 2010) and Jody Hice of Georgia (first elected in 2014) became strong voices of the House GOP. Eventually, the ideologues made the chamber so inhospitable that then-Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned his seat at the end of October 2015.

The House now has a long list of extreme ideologues, ranging from Eli Crane and Andy Biggs of Arizona to Clay Higgins of Louisiana, Troy Nehls of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who don’t care if government works at all. In fact, they are content with gridlock, as they pander to the needs of former President Donald Trump.

Over in the Senate, the GOP also continues its slide to the right. 

Sure, libertarian conservatives like Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have been around for a while. But now, they are joined by the likes of Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Ted Budd of North Carolina, J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks may well join them next year.

The Republican Senate leadership still includes many institutionalists who embrace the concept of compromise and understand how government is supposed to work. But they are aging — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will turn 82 years old on Feb. 20 — and many of them will be replaced over the next decade with more ideological members.

The Roy Blunts of the world are being replaced by the Josh Hawleys. As political scientist Sean Theriault noted in “The Gingrich Senators,” his 2013 book: “The short-term future (of the Senate) is bleak, at least for those critical of today’s more partisan Senate. And because it is bleak, it will become even bleaker.”

The retirements of GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina and Kay Granger of Texas are more than mere coincidences. They undoubtedly reflect the bitterness on Capitol Hill and the petty partisanship of politics these days.

Extremists aren’t all that interested in passing legislation. They are more interested in creating havoc and making statements. Legislators look to build coalitions, while ideologues are more interested in making fiery speeches.

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