Blunt, who announced Monday that he would not seek reelection, would no doubt like to be remembered as a legislator who adeptly and unabashedly played the inside game. But another, more melancholy way to remember Blunt is as a politician who found himself increasingly out of step with a party that demonized that skill set — and who concluded that, even after the end of the Trump presidency, the cost of winning reelection and serving in a transformed Republican Party was simply too steep.
“I think the country, in the last decade or so, has sort of fallen off the edge with too many politicians saying, ‘If you vote for me, I’ll never compromise on anything,’” Blunt told reporters in Springfield, Mo., in explaining his departure.
To watch Blunt during the Trump presidency, in particular its ugly final weeks, was to witness a politician struggling to find his own compromise, between conscience and party, between speaking his mind and seeking to get something done. He called then-President Donald Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 “clearly reckless” and expressed disappointment that Trump would skip the swearing-in of his successor. Yet he voted against convicting Trump in the impeachment trial, arguing implausibly that “the president touched the hot stove … and is unlikely to touch it again.”
If the Trump years were uncomfortable for Blunt, that position wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In 2010, Blunt gave up his role as the top Republican vote-counter in the House to run for Senate partly because he did not like what the lower chamber had become since his election in 1996. Yet, over the years, associates say, he has come to lament the increasingly smash-mouth tactics and ideological rigidity that have taken hold in the Senate as well.
To appreciate the transformation of the GOP, consider that Josh Hawley will succeed Blunt as Missouri’s senior senator come 2023. On the day Hawley said he would object to the counting of electoral votes for Joe Biden at the congressional joint session, Blunt announced he would not do so.
The retirement decision by Blunt, the No. 4 in the Senate GOP hierarchy, shocked not only his colleagues but also many well-connected Missouri Republicans. They had wagered that the 71-year-old could fend off an expected primary challenge by former governor Eric Greitens, who resigned in 2018 after being criminally charged in connection with an alleged blackmail scheme that targeted a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair. The charges were dropped.
Greitens had seized on Blunt’s criticism of Trump — and endorsed the former president’s conspiracy theories that the election has been stolen. It promised to be an ugly primary, with Greitens attacking Blunt as the ultimate D.C. insider and highlighting his wife’s lobbying work. During an appearance on former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast, Greitens celebrated Blunt’s retirement, saying he “threw his lot in with Mitch McConnell.”
Blunt is the fifth Republican senator to announce that he will not seek reelection next year — an unusually large crop that could grow by one or two. All come from what remains of the governing wing of the GOP; all have expressed varying degrees of discomfort with Trump. And their departures seem likely to open the way to GOP candidates more aligned with the former president and his combative style of politics — perhaps endangering Republican efforts to regain the majority.
Blunt’s style is cordial conciliation, not combat. As chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee, Blunt worked with Democrats to expand the size of the National Institutes of Health budget by nearly 43 percent over the past six years — even when Trump’s budgets called for cuts. He partnered with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to expand community mental health and addiction services. As the top Republican on the Rules and Administration Committee, Blunt wrote new sexual harassment rules for Congress with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and the duo maneuvered to get more money for states to administer elections amid the pandemic.
When Biden’s victory was finally certified, following the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, Klobuchar and Blunt inspected the damage together. She recalled visiting the ransacked Senate parliamentarian’s office at 4 a.m.
“I don’t agree with all his votes, but in the moment when the democracy had to pick itself up and dust itself off, he was there,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “You can have disagreements on votes, but in the end, you want people who have it in them to let down their guard and govern.”
Blunt wasn’t the only Republican senator who tried to have it both ways. They governed, but they recoiled, for the most part, at standing up to Trump. This uneasy compromise worked, a little; they accomplished some goals. But it did nothing to stop the party’s descent.
And now the governing caucus is at risk of being replaced by people who share little of that inclination — and even less curiosity about that unnamed bust on the shelf, or the lesson in humility it should teach.