By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
As the smoke continues to clear in the wake of July’s Mueller hearings, Alabamians can look back on the day with some pride.
With the eyes of the nation and world watching the House Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Alabama’s Rep. Martha Roby had a difficult task. While led by a Democrats, the Judiciary Committee is populated by pro-Trump firebrands like Reps. Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert, Ken Buck, and John Ratcliffe. Their lines of questioning were aggressive and conspiratorial. At many times, their behavior was unbecoming of a United States Congressman and insulting to a lifelong public servant in Robert Mueller. Roby wisely avoided this line of questioning, focusing instead on the degree to which Mueller and Attorney General William Barr were on the same page with the release of the Mueller Report and the redactions it contains. It was an important line of questioning, but it was not a sexy one. Roby’s pursuit purposely avoided the sort of conspiratorial questions many of her colleagues pursued, and suggested that whatever her concerns for the hearing, she was avoided the darker corners of the Russiagate conspiracies.
It should be said that Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell also distinguished herself hours later in the Intelligence Committee hearing. Democrats on the committee incessantly praised Mueller for his patriotism and service in an over-the-top way that was likely as embarrassing for Mueller as it was annoying to viewers. For her part, Sewell kept her praise succinct and brief and avoided grandstanding like her Democratic colleagues. On a day when plenty of Americans had good reason to be ashamed of their representatives, Alabamians could be proud of both Roby and Sewell.
Perhaps Roby’s performance stands out in hindsight because it could be one of her last big moments on the national stage. Two days after the hearing, she announced that she would not seek reelection, choosing to step aside after five terms of service on behalf of the state’s 2nd District.
Elected during a populist Republican wave in 2010, Roby has served as a temperate, level-headed voice. Though a conservative in her ideology, she has been moderate in her tone. Given the upheaval of the last decade, that alone is commendable. Her virtues have extended beyond mere tone; her work on behalf of the veterans of our state and nation has been critical. She is well-liked and well-respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and her presence will be missed.
She has also been a statesman, albeit in a manner that many of her constituents found unwelcome. She was reluctant to support Donald Trump in 2016, recognizing him as the deeply flawed man that he is. When audio emerged of Trump bragging of sexual assault, Roby bravely stood in front of voters and declined to offer her support to her party’s nominee. That was not an easy decision to make, and when her 2018 opponent criticized her for failing to appear often enough in front of her district, I suspect that had less to do with fear of lower Alabama liberals, and more to do with Roby’s desire to avoid open conflict with the increasingly trenchant voices among the GOP’s far right. Indeed, while I believe Roby is sincere in her desire to be back home in Alabama among family and friends, it seems that she has grown tired of carrying water for a President and party increasingly defined by erratic if not malicious behavior. In saluting Roby’s decision, we can hope that her time on the national stage is not coming to a permanent close. Her state and nation will need her leadership in the future.
Roby is not alone, as several other Republican House members have announced early retirements. Perhaps the most stunning of all was the announcement last week that Will Hurd of Texas will not seek reelection. A former CIA operative and the lone black Repulican in the House, Hurd is an exceptionally bright and creative thinker. His departure, at least in the short term, is detrimental to the GOP’s ability to thoughtfully craft a cohesive message about the numerous issues facing our nation. Just as Roby pushed back on Trump’s treatment of women, Hurd was one of only four Republicans willing to back a measure condemning racist tweets by President Trump.
Like Roby, Hurd did not use the Mueller hearings as an opportunity for conspiracy-mongering. Instead, Hurd’s line of questioning for Robert Mueller was focused on the very real threat that Russian intelligence poses to the integrity of our nation’s elections. Mueller himself engaged the question and reiterated the importance of our nation’s intelligence services working together to stop active measures on the part of Russia or any other adversary. This was a serious question on a serious matter, and future leaders should heed the warning posited by both Hurd and Mueller.
The problem faced by the Republican Party is who those future leaders will be. While political stars occasionally come out of nowhere, they are usually recruited and cultivated over a period of time. If bright lights like Roby and Hurd find that serving as a member of the House is a fruitless endeavor, other young leaders are likely to arrive at the same conclusion. Those candidates who take their place may not be so thoughtful, believing instead that voters want their representatives to earn accolades from cable talk show hosts and less savory demagogues. When that happens, Republicans may find that their party is not just a party committed to stopping bad legislation. Instead they may find that theirs is a party fundamentally incapable of governing.
The early retirements of Martha Roby and Will Hurd are grave warning signs. When this moment comes for the GOP, no one should be surprised.
Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News. He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal