The Best and Worst of Bob Dole

By Shenk, Joshua Wolf | The Washington Monthly, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

The Best and Worst of Bob Dole


Shenk, Joshua Wolf, The Washington Monthly


By this point, you probably know all about Russell, sell, the war wound, and the "mean streak." In an era of personality politics, Bob Dole's personality has been combed over by the very best. We know he's a consummate dealmaker, but that he hates to be boxed in. He's a smooth politician and fiercely loyal, but has an acerbic wit that sometimes gets him in trouble. We know about the great lines ("He could just fly over Kansas in Air Force One," he said when asked if he wanted Nixon to campaign for him) and the disastrous ones ("Democrat wars," "Stop lying about my record").

Most of all, we know that Bob Dole really, really wants to be president.

But Dole's personality offers little clue as to what he'd do if he achieved that goal. On the campaign trail, the ex-senator says he's no Bill Clinton. But what would he do if he sent Clinton back to Arkansas and--a distinct possibility--led a White House backed by a Republican Congress?

Fortunately, Dole has left 35 years of footprints. A freshman House member at the dawn of the New Frontier in 1960, he won a Senate seat in 1968, chaired the Finance Committee in the early '80s, and was the Senate Republican leader from 1985 until he stepped down last month.

What follows are the high and low moments of those 35 years. At his best, Bob Dole is a fiscal conservative who understands that "sacrifice" means more than cutting programs for the poor, and a skeptic of government activism who nevertheless sees the dangerous excesses of an unfettered marketplace. At his worst, Bob Dole is obeisant to the extreme fringes of his party and to wealthy campaign contributors, eschewing tough choices in favor of political advancement.

Obviously, this list reflects certain interests and viewpoints. And no one article can include all of the hundreds of issues Dole has faced in his career. But the facts are revealing nonetheless.

Paradoxically, one revealing element is that clear patterns are difficult to discern from this record--indeed, on many issues Dole has gone to both extremes. Which is the real Dole: the man who inveighs against a gas tax, or the man who voted to

raise it 18 times? Is Dole the Gingrich-believer he now claims to be, or the man who made this joke: "You hear Gingrich's staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and one little tiny one. Number one is `Newt's Ideas.' Number two, `Newt's Ideas.' Number three, number four--`Newt's Ideas.' The little one is `Newt's Good Ideas.'"

These inconsistencies make it all the more important that voters be aware of the candidate's legislative history, both to pressure the candidate to lay out the path he would take as president, and, in the absence of such a clear vision, make their own best judgments about where he would go.

The Worst: No Help for the Poor

Mutter the words "Great Society" in Republican circles and you're likely to hear a chorus of jeers--something akin to talking about Jim Crow at an African-American church. Somehow, a caricatured view of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty agenda persists despite the quite popular programs it put in place. Head Start, the grouping of social, health, and educational services to children from deprived families, was enacted in 1965. That year also saw the introduction of guaranteed student loans for college.

Bob Dole voted against both those programs--and many more. He opposed Medicaid and cast votes against public broadcasting and a teacher corps. By the time Bill Clinton was elected, Dole's opposition to social spending had hardened to such an extent that anything other than jails, weapons, or entitlements for the elderly had become "pork." In recent years, he's raised that cry against crime prevention, education, and national service programs.

Dole has shown a similar tendency to oppose requirements that the private sector pay decent wages to the working poor. He opposed increases in the minimum wage in 1961, 1966, 1972, 1973, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1995, and 1996. …

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