Sen. Orrin Hatch

If this conservative senator isn’t safe from conservative attacks, is anyone?

Washington’s conservative activists have found a traitor in their midst, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch. The occasion is Memogate, the internal Senate investigation into whether Republican aides unethically (and perhaps illegally) tapped into Democratic computer files containing private judicial-nomination strategy memos and leaked them to the press. The more the story balloons in the media, embarrassing Republicans and distracting them from trying to confirm more judges, the more right-wing activists savage Hatch, the man they hold responsible for it. To them, the Utah Republican has done something “acutely damaging to the struggle to get conservative judges onto the federal bench,” as one National Review writer put it this week, in a column widely e-mailed among disgusted activists. Another activist ominously warned in the Washington Post of a “thermonuclear” punishment for Hatch. Also in the Post, Gary Bauer fumed over a “demoralized Republican base around the country” and sounded about ready to stage a public hanging on Capitol Hill.

No matter that Hatch has spent the past three years fighting nonstop to confirm George Bush’s judicial nominees. After Hatch declared himself “mortified” by the file-stealing allegations and said he supported a formal investigation, angry GOP activists—who want to downplay down the scandal—accused him of being a weak-kneed appeaser of Democrats. The National Review’s Timothy P. Carney even likened him to Neville Chamberlain.

That’s madness, of course. Under Bush, Hatch has fought bitterly with Democrats over judicial nominations, to the point of shattering an emerging reputation he’d gained for moderation and spoiling some of his old bipartisan friendships. If anything, the real story of Orrin Hatch’s recent career is the way the Bush administration took a senator who had been growing mellower and more independent with age and reduced him to a crude partisan attack dog. Yet even Hatch’s partisanship isn’t enough for the Savonarolas of the right. The right-wing bile over Hatch’s Memogate burst of conscience only shows how frighteningly militant Washington’s church of conservatism has become.

From afar, Hatch’s gentlemanly manner and high collars make him seem like an insufferably dull prig. But by the standards of Congress, he’s a relatively colorful character. He has released nine CDs of his own music—drecky religious and patriotic anthems, but at least he’s trying. Hatch is also a sucker for celebrity. His music Web site features photos of him posing proudly with Barry Manilow and clowning around at a piano with Donnie Osmond. He’s cultivated friendships with athletes like Karl Malone and dedicated a song to his “dear friend” Muhammad Ali. Hatch accepted cameos in HBO’s K Street and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (although Hatch, a Mormon bishop, later explained that he was “shocked and dismayed at the gratuitous amount of violence and profanity” in the film). This fascination with fame may explain Hatch’s ill-advised run for president in 2000, during which he presented himself as the experienced alternative to George W. Bush; he dropped out after registering a pathetic 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses.

Hatch was a more one-dimensional figure when he arrived in the senate almost 30 years ago. A fire-and-brimstone values crusader, he introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade and was prone to saying things like, “Democrats are the party of homosexuals.” In his early career, he routinely tallied one of the most conservative Senate voting records. His intensity rankled even his GOP colleagues, one of whom later admitted he thought Hatch was an egomaniac with an irritating “save-the-world complex.”

But that helped him score points in the GOP as a reliable attack dog. During the Iran-Contra hearings, no one defended Oliver North and the Reagan White House more stubbornly. And during Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation battle, no one trashed Anita Hill with more zest. (Among other things, Hatch bizarrely suggested Hill might have lifted her famous tale about pubic hair and Coke from The Exorcist.)

But the institution got to Hatch. He started flashing a softer side. In 1986 he held the first Senate hearing on AIDS, at which he hugged a victim of the disease. He also befriended Sen. Ted Kennedy, whom he’d once deemed “one of the major dangers to the country,” and together they passed a major AIDS bill. That friendship led to more joint efforts over the years, culminating in a 1997 bill that raised $30 billion in tobacco taxes to fund child health care and infuriated Hatch’s Republican colleagues.A year later, Hatch galled conservatives in the midst of President Clinton’s impeachment by saying, “I want to help him, he’s a human being.” Hatch adopted the comradely customs of the Senate with an enthusiasm that irked some GOP colleagues. Throughout the ‘90s, conservatives griped that Hatch was never enthusiastic enough about blocking Clinton’s judicial nominees and was too willing to deal with the enemy. In 1997, überconservative Paul Weyrich hissed to the American Spectator that Hatch “needs psychological help.”

Since Bush took office, however, Hatch has reverted to his old hyper-partisan self. As judiciary chairman, he’s led an unrelenting assault to confirm Bush’s conservative nominees, which included last fall’s 39-hour marathon session that kept senators up all night. These days Hatch is far more likely to be sputtering at Democrats than backslapping them. During last year’s standoff over appellate court nominee Miguel Estrada, for instance, Hatch could’ve been channeling House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as he raged at the “shameful” and “despicable” tactics of the Democrats, who he said were trying to “murder” and “destroy” Estrada. (After one especially colorful outburst, Hatch had to come back and apologize for violating Senate decorum.) Even Hatch’s long friendship with Kennedy is fraying. “You are not going to bully me,” Kennedy snapped at him at a hearing last year. “You are not going to bully me, either,” Hatch shot back.

Democrats now complain that the institutionalist Hatch has resorted to breaking Senate rules to get his way—failing to give them adequate notice before hearings, for example, and ignoring committee debate procedures. Hatch even entertained last year’s radical GOP plan, which was never attempted, to change longstanding Senate rules so that nominees can’t be filibustered.

Hatch has also leveled cheap accusations of bigotry against Democrats. During last year’s nomination fight over Alabama federal court nominee William Pryor Jr., a Catholic, Hatch suggested that the Democrats’ refusal to confirm judges with strong anti-gay and anti-abortion views is tantamount to anti-Catholicism. (That was a hard point to explain to Catholic Democrats like Kennedy, but never mind.) The attack was well-coordinated with outside Republican activists like C. Boyden Gray, whose Committee for Justice attacked Democrats with demagogic television ads featuring a sign that read “Catholics Need Not Apply.”

Many Democrats suspect Hatch isn’t capable of coming up with such sleaze on his own and assume he’s simply following orders from a ruthless Bush administration. “I see the situation as an overly partisan, ideologically driven agenda from the White House,” Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, a judiciary committee member, told National Journal last year. “Left to his own devices, he would not be doing most of these things.”

That theory may explain why conservatives are so quick to lambaste Hatch over the computer files scandal. Fundamentally, they don’t trust him. They suspect him of being a Manchurian Senator. Even as he’s waged their judicial war, they’ve continued to doubt his devotion—and have been waiting to pounce on any hint of his past gay-hugging, Kennedy-loving weakness. Which says fairly depressing things about today’s Republican Party. If the Bush-era GOP can turn even an open-minded Republican like Hatch into a ruthless foot soldier, and if conservatives will still turn on him viciously for even the slightest display of conscience during Memogate, what hope is there?