Three Cheers for Jon Kyl’s Return

Former Senator Jon Kyl (R, Ariz.) leads a news conference in Washington, DC, December 21, 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/Reuters)
He is from a different era, figuratively and literally.

Conservatives should cheer Governor Doug Ducey’s wise appointment of former senator Jon Kyl — for whom I worked from 2003 to 2008 — to serve as John McCain’s replacement in the Senate. This was a smart move that gives Congress a seasoned leader from whom other legislators can, and should, learn.

First and foremost, we should cheer Senator Kyl’s basic sense of decency and commitment to principled advocacy. Kyl is laser-focused on effective persuasion, and effectiveness means more than just speaking louder or faster. He is unafraid to engage, but he is always looking for areas of shared purpose, without insulting or disparaging. Burn no bridges! Congress is full of repeat players who need to trust each other and to be prepared to deal honestly over time, but who among us believes that ethic is dominant today?

During his previous stint in Congress, Senator Kyl’s recognition of the need for relationships meant that he very rarely voiced his views of other senators’ motives, but chose to treat their positions as policy-driven, confronting them on those terms. Sometimes this approach entails embracing a fiction, and your opponent’s untoward motives are plain as day, but he saw no value in highlighting that. This tendency was a frustration to staffers outraged at Senate Democrats for various cynical or hypocritical positions, but Senator Kyl insisted on taking the temperature down. “Focus on the policy!” We should welcome that approach in Congress, even when it means passing on easy attacks.

Conservatives also should cheer Senator Kyl’s own policy focus, one that is anachronistic in the all-politics-all-the-time Washington of 2018. He’s a Reagan conservative of the three-legged-stool variety, and he spent a great deal of time on the nitty-gritty, whether it was in national security, tax reform, immigration, or even arcane areas like patent law and federal water policy. Even if Senator Kyl dives into only a handful of issues, we can expect to get better policymaking.

We should also cheer how Senator Kyl approaches politics. Senator Kyl ran for election seven times, and he wasn’t afraid to tangle with Democrats while campaigning, but he also wasn’t terribly interested in launching partisan attacks or maneuvering for the next election. He isn’t going to the Senate to critique his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, nor is he going there to attack President Trump. He has been candid that he doesn’t approve of the president’s style, but his reason is instructive: It makes the president less “effective.” Kyl wants to move policy forward, not to get caught up in the day-to-day news cycles. Let others tweet. Jon Kyl will be focusing on legislating and, if history is a guide, helping Congress to be more worthy of its primacy in our political order.

Jon Kyl is from a different era, figuratively and literally. Although he retired less than six years ago, only 61 current senators served with him, and more than half the House of Representatives is new. Moreover, Senator Kyl has committed to serving only until January, although many are urging him to serve until the 2020 election. Regardless of his tenure in this second tour, Senator Kyl’s approach to service is a worthy model, and he has much to teach, not through lecturing, but simply by example.

Steven J. Duffield — Steven J. Duffield worked for Senator Jon Kyl from 2003 to 2008, including as chief counsel and policy director in the Senate Republican Conference and Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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