When word first came that Sen. Thad Cochran, Republican of Tennessee, was retiring on April 1 for health reasons, I waited for the punch line. It had to be an April Fools' joke, right? The day Cochran became a Senator 40 years ago, Jimmy Carter was president and Grease had just hit the theaters. On the longevity scale, he's right up there with Sam Rayburn and Ted Kennedy. It was an odd thing to contemplate: How do you have a Senate without Thad Cochran?
Easy, I realized. You have a better one, maybe.
Thad Cochran is one of those occasional public servants whose conservative cruelty goes largely unnoted. Perhaps it's the luck of geography; with sincere apologies to the Magnolia State, the easiest deflection in politics is "Yeah, but he's from Mississippi." Having former Sen. Trent Lott as your wingman, as Cochran did for many years, certainly raises the bar for mendacity while taking off a good amount of heat. Lott enjoyed the cameras; Cochran was too busy.
Thad Cochran's desk, a gift he happily accepted, belonged to Jefferson Davis when Davis was president of the Confederacy. In his time as a senator, Cochran requested nearly half a billion dollars in earmarks, more than anyone in Congress. In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for not passing an anti-lynching law during the days of Jim Crow, a grimly necessary measure at the time. Cochran and Lott were not among the 80 senators who cosponsored the resolution.
That same year, Cochran voted against the Detainee Treatment Act, which would have prohibited the gross abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Joining him in that vote favoring torture were today's right-wing all-Ssars: Jeff Cornyn, Ted Stevens, Jim Inhofe, Pat Roberts and then-Senator Jeff Sessions. In 2009, Cochran voted against the Affordable Care Act, and just last year signed a letter urging President Trump to abandon the Paris Agreement, which he did.
Four months after a gunman slaughtered 20 children and six staff members at a grammar school in Connecticut, Thad Cochran voted against a bill that expanded background checks for gun purchases. The bill was defeated despite having a national approval rating near 90 percent. Thad Cochran, to no one's surprise, enjoys an A+ legislative rating from the National Rifle Association.
The refrain, as ever: What if they elect someone worse than Cochran? Answer: They won't, because they can't. The thing about guys like Ted Cruz and Roy Moore is that they devour headlines and air time, but seldom actually get anything done. They're still quite dangerous, but we also need to recognize the danger of lower-profile lawmakers such as Cochran, who has been exceedingly effective in enacting his agenda. He was named one of the US's ten best senators by Time Magazine and dubbed "The Quiet Persuader" by his colleagues. The Roy Moores of the world can ruin dinner with their ranting, but Cochran will have already left you with the check.
Thad Cochran isn't the only marble statue that has chosen to pull up its roots and hit the road. Congress will be a very different place in 2018, no matter what the Democrats manage to accomplish, due to the departures of several seemingly eternal conservatives.
Sen Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, is for the door when his term expires. Flake has warmed the cockles of many liberal hearts lately with his scathing attacks on Trump, but that doesn't make him Baelor the Blessed. He voted in favor of the Iraq war as a member of the House in 2002 but changed his mind and started voting against war appropriations five years later. In other words, when it became unpopular, Flake the fiscal conservative voted to stop paying for the war he'd voted for. In 2005, Flake voted against appropriating federal funds to address the unimaginable damage done by Hurricane Katrina, one of five times he has voted against disaster aid funding.
There are many Flake stories, but this one takes the cake. In April of 2013, he penned a note to the mother of a victim of the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. "Strengthening background checks," he wrote, "is something we agree on." A few days later, he voted with Cochran and the others against strengthening background checks. Flake's approval rating collapsed to 32 percent, making him at the time the most unpopular senator in the country.
They might elect someone worse? Hard to imagine.
Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, is likewise taking his leave of public office in 2018. Corker made some heavy waves after criticizing Trump's pro-fascist reaction to the violence in Charlottesville; when Trump inevitably bashed back, he called the White House "an adult day-care center." The left batted its eyes in approval until Corker went back to being Corker.
The frost between him and Trump didn't linger long. The two mended fences out of pure political expediency, and Corker the notorious fiscal hawk wound up supporting Trump's deficit-detonating tax bill. Notably, the bill carried a provision that will vastly enrich real estate moguls … like Donald Trump and Bob Corker.
It's nice to retire after topping off the ol' bank account.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, is after 41 years the longest-serving senator in his party. That ends next year. Hatch has not let the legislative grass grow over the decades; when the notoriously conservative Salt Lake City Tribune denounces you for your "utter lack of integrity" and "unquenchable thirst for power," it means you've really been putting the work in.
Gadzooks, where to begin? Hatch voted in favor of the TARP bailout before voting against it, was instrumental in dismantling the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, voted in favor of Trump's calamitous tax cuts, launched multiple investigations into subsidies for green energy production, opposed the ACA, was a leading voice in approving Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court before helping to thwart Merrick Garland's nomination years later, once compared LGBTQ teachers to Nazis, and introduced the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which broadly loosened EPA controls over predatory drug companies and vastly exacerbated the national opioid crisis.
All in a day's work … or in Hatch's case, 14,975 days' work.
No matter what happens during the 2018 midterm elections, the US Congress is going to be a whole new thing after the departure of this clutch of hard-right senators and their friends. If the GOP manages to maintain majority control in the upper chamber, they will still have a nifty little mud fight on their hands. Corker is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Hatch is chairman of both Finance and Judiciary, Cochran is chairman of Appropriations … and those committees are where almost all the action (and almost all the money) is. They're all up for grabs no matter who prevails come November.
More than 30 Republican lawmakers are joining Cochran, Flake Corker and Hatch next year on their way to ports unknown, most of them from the House. August names like Issa, Gowdy, Barton, Chaffetz, Farenthold, Franks and Meehan will no longer be with us after January. Strange days indeed.
However, conservatives shouldn't be too nervous. When the chips are down and it matters most, leave it to the Democrats to fill the conservative gap left by any departing right-wing Republicans. Nancy Pelosi is already retreating on DACA and guns in the current budget debate. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, tore her own party to pieces this week for its support of a GOP-led push to roll back banking regulations put in place after the financial collapse of 2008.
"If Republicans and some Democrats are going to help the bank lobbyists roll back Wall Street reform, we're going to make sure the American people know about it," Warren wrote on social media. "This bill wouldn't be on the path to becoming law without the support of these Democrats."
The more things change, the more they stay the same.