In a recent conversation with some of my out-of-state family members, the subject of Senate Republicans came up. When someone mentioned Josh Hawley, it immediately ignited a lively round of fuming. When I mentioned Roy Blunt, I had to explain who he is.
At one level, it makes no sense that Hawley, Missouri’s junior senator and a relative political novice, should be a national celebrity, while Blunt — fourth-ranking Republican senator in America, with almost five decades of political experience from Greene County, Missouri, to Jefferson City to both chambers of Congress — would be obscure to anyone who isn’t a Missourian or a political junkie.
At another level, though, it makes all the sense in the world. If experience and accomplishment were the only coins of the realm in politics, President Hillary Clinton would be starting her second term and Donald Trump would still be the pop-culture punchline he always was before 2016. Hawley’s political celebrity comes not from his thin list of legislative achievements, but from his McCarthyesque talent for demagogic theater. Blunt, in contrast, has long presented the measured, dignified political persona that, once upon a time, defined establishment Republicans.
Unfortunately, Blunt also has personified what establishment Republicans became during the Trump era: passive enablers to a chronically mendacious, constitutionally malicious, mentally unfit president.
And now Blunt is, once again, personifying the GOP establishment, this time by exiting the extremist bunker that his party has become — a trend that intensified under Trump, as Blunt and others at the grownups’ table stared down at their plates in mute terror.
With his announcement last week that his current term will be his last, Blunt joins a growing list of mainstream Senate Republicans who have opted to bail. In his case, it was a surprise. Blunt recently turned 71, a spring chicken by Senate standards. Missouri, unlike some other red states, isn’t in danger of turning blue any time soon. It’s unlikely any Democrat could threaten Blunt if he sought a third term in 2022.
But it’s not the Democrats he’s worried about. Like most GOP incumbents these days, Blunt’s reelection threats would come mostly from his own party, which has been pushing itself rightward for a generation. Again and again, Republican incumbents who are deemed insufficiently conservative (to the extent that word even means anything anymore) are shoved out by primary challengers to their right.
Over the years, GOP moderates have either moved right themselves to survive, or they’ve been ousted. This is the root cause of the radicalization of the GOP in Congress — most recently demonstrated by its lockstep opposition to an urgently needed pandemic-relief package supported by wide majorities of Americans, including Republicans.
In a statement last week to the Springfield News-Leader, Blunt decried the uncompromising nature of politics today. It’s a familiar complaint, but what struck me about the statement was an aside from Blunt that was uncharacteristically, well, blunt: “Democracy is not for sissies.”
In context, he meant it takes some courage to compromise with people on the other side of the political divide to get things done. But I’d suggest another meaning: Sometimes you have to tell those on your own side how wrong they are. Over the past four years, precious few congressional Republicans have been willing to do that when it counted most. Blunt wasn’t among them.
Blunt, just by virtue of his position in the Senate Republican hierarchy, could have forced a historic shift in the narrative of the Trump era had he done what he could have — should have — done at any point during Trump’s tenure. Blunt could have walked up to any microphone in sight after some Trumpian outrage or other (the available choices were constant) and said what he knows is true: This isn’t who we are. As a party, or as a country. Acceptance of this ignorant, corrosive sociopath of a president isn’t a valid trade for tax cuts and judges. It’s a selling of the soul, and I won’t do it anymore.
Yes, he would have lost his Senate Republican leadership role and probably his seat — the same seat he is now leaving willingly anyway. Meanwhile, it would have forced a badly needed self-examination by the GOP. Most importantly, Blunt might have provided a little cover for lower-ranking Republicans of conscience to follow suit.
Instead, Blunt mostly held his tongue for four years, voting twice to acquit Trump for his clearly impeachable offenses of trying to extort election aid from Ukraine and for inciting violent insurrection in an attempt to overturn the 2020 vote.
In essence, Blunt consistently backed a president who represented the most dire threat to constitutional democracy that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. The fact that Blunt did this quietly, without the toxic enthusiasm of Hawley and his ilk, is irrelevant. What’s the point of having a grownups’ table if its occupants let the children overrun the place?