Comment: Bob Dole was partisan, but he knew how to govern

The Republican senator fought Democratic legislation but would also work diligently across the aisle.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Bob Dole, one of the best of the 20th-century senators, died Sunday at 98. Dole is probably best remembered for his unsuccessful national campaigns; for vice president in 1976, and for president in 1980, 1988 and 1996, when he finally captured the nomination only to get crushed by Bill Clinton.

Those efforts didn’t show Dole at his best; his main contributions were as chairman of the Senate finance committee and then as the Senate’s Republican leader, including two stints as majority leader.

Dole took governing seriously, and that’s what he should be remembered for. Dole was also extremely partisan. One can look at this a few ways. It’s possible to construct a pretty negative interpretation, with Dole advancing the vicious partisanship that took over after he exited office in 1996. One can also focus on Dole as the architect of rejectionism, with Republicans in 1993 and 1994 using the filibuster to defeat the Democrats rather than working constructively to cut the best possible deals while in the minority.

Dole had a long career and fought hard for his side; if you’re looking for the roots of the worst of the current Republican Party, it’s possible to find examples in things Dole did. But I think a better way to look at Dole’s political career is that he exemplified a healthier path that partisan polarization could’ve taken. In other words, he’s historically important precisely because he was such a strong partisan, and yet he did not automatically reject working with Democrats.

His great legislative accomplishment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, was a bipartisan initiative during a time of divided government. Even during Clinton’s presidency, when he was finding new uses for the filibuster to block the Democrats’ agenda, he was willing to back off and cooperate to ratify NAFTA and other bills. As Senate finance chairman during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Dole was a key leader in cutting taxes in 1981; and in raising taxes in 1982, when he and other responsible Republicans thought it was the best policy.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, not Dole, was the main player in shutting down the government twice in 1995 and 1996; Dole didn’t prevent it, but he did eventually act to cut a deal and move on.

As far as campaigning, Dole was very different from his great rival, George H.W. Bush. Bush treated campaigning and governing as two almost entirely separate spheres. Dole was far more likely to make a cutting remark, but I never had the sense that he considered campaigning and governing unrelated. Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t willing to take a no-taxes pledge during the 1988 nomination battle; Bush, of course, campaigned on “no new taxes” but treated that pledge as just something he had to say to get elected, not something he considered to be particularly constraining once he was in office.

Bush certainly took governing seriously, but I’m not sure he really understood representation. Dole was, I’d say, a thoroughly democratic politician, who worked hard at both governing and building a solid representational relationship with his constituents.

For more, see the Kansas City Star obituary, evidence that Dole was among the most productive policy makers of the postwar era and a survey of public opinion about him.

The best thing to read about Bob Dole remains the chapters about him in Richard Ben Cramer’s wonderful portrayal of six of the leading 1988 presidential candidates, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House.”

You might as well read through, since you don’t want to miss the chapters on Bush or, for that matter, those about Joe Biden. But the Dole sections are really the heart of the book.

Dole served with quite a few impressive senators from both parties, including plenty of Republicans. What set him apart from folks such as Jacob Javits or Richard Lugar or Howard Baker was that he was very conservative, and extremely partisan, from the start. And yet like Javits and Lugar and Baker, but unlike most of today’s Republicans, he was serious about — and good at — governing. He understood that elected officials had a responsibility to represent their constituents and to attempt to solve the nation’s problems. And, like Tip O’Neill (and Nancy Pelosi), he showed that very strong partisanship could coexist with bargaining and deal-making. To me, that makes Bob Dole the example Republicans should’ve followed; and a hero of the republic.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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