Since former Senator Bob Dole died earlier this week, at 98, there’s been an outpouring of affection for the former majority leader, Republican presidential nominee and party chair, and wounded World War II veteran who was at the center of American politics for more than a generation. This wave of warm feeling might have washed over Washington had Dole passed away five years ago, before the election of Donald Trump. But after the norm-shattering turmoil of the past half decade, there was bound to be even more nostalgia for Dole. Even though he could be combative—he was even dubbed a “hatchet man”—he embodied what the Capitol Hill calls “regular order.” (Dole himself was a Trump backer, but his life in Washington—from his arrival in 1961 until his passing—was devoted to the normal Republicanism of yore.)
The Dole ethos seems like a time capsule now. He was an organization man, whether he was fighting in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in 1945 or working his way up through the House and the Senate Republican leadership. He had a respect for rules, procedures, and congressional colleagues that seems quaint in the wake of Trumpian chaos. The Kansan was not a moderate, but he had bipartisan impulses. Dole famously worked closely with Senator George McGovern of South Dakota on nutrition issues, establishing the Food for Peace international aid program, which didn’t hurt farmers back home.
Dole came to Congress in 1961, the same year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, and he fought New Frontier and Great Society programs with gusto. But the former prosecutor backed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and enabled an essential extension of the VRA in 1982. In 1990, he helped usher passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dole, unable to use his right arm from the gunfire that had ripped it apart in the war, kept a pen in the injured hand to dissuade folks who tried to awkwardly shake it.
There are a few things that haven’t gotten enough attention in the last couple of days that say something about Dole and this moment.
The first was Dole’s 1976 nomination as vice president on the Republican ticket, and what it says about the oft-cited Overton window. Looking past the craziness of today’s Republican Party, it’s hard to believe that in 1976, the Republican president of the United States was Gerald Ford, and the vice president was former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Neither had been elected, of course, thus they didn’t really reflect their party’s post-Goldwater drift. Still, they weren’t seen as RINO outliers, which they’d be today.
While Ford’s elevation from the Republican House leadership was a play by a besieged Richard Nixon to win friends on Capitol Hill, the elevation of Rockefeller was an epic endorsement of, well, Rockefeller Republicanism, which many Republicans savored even while the gathering Reaganite majority loathed. Most of the pushback at Rockefeller’s vice presidential confirmation hearings came from Democrats, incensed at the New York governor’s handling of the 1971 Attica prison siege.
When Ronald Reagan almost defeated Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976, the president had no choice but to move right and dump Rocky. Dole was the right-winger that Ford tapped to be his running mate. That Dole, now revered for his bipartisanship and statesmanlike gravitas, was known as a right-wing attack dog seems incredible now. The members of my liberal household—I was 13 at the time—thought Dole was a Republican Rottweiler. A young Bill Clinton did, too. Working on behalf of Jimmy Carter and running for Arkansas attorney general, Clinton referred to Dole as “the biggest prick in Congress” in a private note. Thirty years later, they would face off in the 1996 presidential election.
When Dole mentioned all of the deaths in “Democrat wars” during his 1976 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, he was rightly chastised. My father, a Navy veteran, audibly groaned. (For some strange reason, most Americans blamed Hitler and Hirohito for U.S. casualties in World War II, not Franklin Roosevelt.) But the bar is so, so much higher now for what constitutes a breach of etiquette than in the Dole era! Shouting “You lie!” at a State of the Union. Calling all members of the Democratic Party Communists, as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene often does. Putting out videos showing an animated version of yourself killing a colleague, as Representative Paul Gosar did. Dole’s deservedly celebrated wit could cross the line to mean. But consider some of his famous lines, like his quip to George H. W. Bush in the midst of their ferocious 1988 presidential nomination fight: “Stop lying about my record.” At the time, this caused pearl clutching. Today, it would barely register on the cable news outrage meter. It’s not that Dole was some bipartisan saint. As Senate Republican leader in the 1990s, his reflexive obstructionism with Bill Clinton stymied what might have been compromises on health care and other issues. But he was never filibuster-happy the way Mitch McConnell is.
The other thing I wanted to mention about Dole is TEFRA. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 was signed with great reluctance by Ronald Reagan and shepherded by then Senate Finance Committee Chair Bob Dole. The bill did much to reverse the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 that set the country on a dramatically different fiscal course, an age of deficit spending. These days, after the financial crisis and the pandemic, and decades of deficit spending, the idea of government borrowing isn’t as fraught as it was in 1981. But the global financial conditions of 2022 are decidedly different from those of 1982. The world is awash in capital in a way that it wasn’t some 40 years ago, when fears of a savings squeeze and so-called crowding-out caused by federal debt was a legitimate concern.
Dole not only backed TEFRA, which trimmed scheduled Reagan tax cuts, including many for business, such as accelerated depreciation. (It also instituted withholding on interest and dividend payments, which primarily accrue to higher earners.) As finance chair, Dole transformed a supply-side-style House bill into one with some fiscal rectitude. Dole would walk away from his deficit hawk roots plenty of times in the future, especially in 1996, when he ran for president with supply-side God Jack Kemp as his running mate. In 1982, however, he presided over the largest tax increase in history, a label for TEFRA that he tried to shake but which was valid for almost a decade until Bill Clinton took office.
Imagine. A Republican who pushed back on his own party’s president to raise taxes. Good luck finding that today. RIP.