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Bob Dole, Senate Lion in Partisan Winter

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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With the exception of President Ronald Reagan, Robert J. Dole of Kansas was the most influential Republican of the last third of the 20th century. He sought his party's Presidential nomination three times, winning it once. And in 1976 he was the Republican vice presidential candidate.

His greatest achievements -- he never won national office --occurred in the Senate, where he was chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee under Reagan and for twelve years the Republican Senate Leader. Congressional scholars rate him one of the most effective Senate leaders of the 20th century.

Dole could be a strong partisan -- he was Republican Party chairman during the Richard Nixon Administration -- but he also worked with Democrats, including liberals such as George Mitchell and even George McGovern, on issues including food stamps and hunger assistance for the poor.

Severely wounded at the end of World War II, Dole has been a champion of people with disabilities. At 91, he goes to work at his law firm each day. Informed and sometimes blunt, he possesses one of the sharpest wits in politics. Earlier this month I queried Dole by e-mail on U.S. politics and the Republican Party. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Hunt: When you arrived in the Senate, more than 70 percent of members were veterans. Today, in the 114th Congress, fewer than 20 percent are. Does that matter?

Dole: Veterans are sort of like a fraternity -- we stick together -- which I think played a role in maintaining a sense of unity among those of us who had also served in the military.

Hunt: We're often nostalgic for the past. A generation ago you were a dominate player; was the Senate, and politics, really better then?

Dole: It’s hard to judge, since I’ve had very little contact since 1996. I do believe there was a more collegial atmosphere among Democrats and Republicans, and we were able -- in many instances -- to work across party lines.

Hunt: For all your differences, you had productive relationships with Democratic leaders Robert Byrd and George Mitchell. How?

Dole: I had good working relationships with Senators Mitchell and Byrd – as well as Senator Tom Daschle – primarily because we developed friendship and trust and never tried to surprise one another on the Senate floor. Senator Byrd was a little skeptical when I became Republican Leader because he thought I might be too partisan. But after a couple of months, he agreed that we could certainly do a lot of work together. In fact, I used to go to Senator Byrd when I had a problem I didn’t know how to answer -- and he was always helpful. Senators Mitchell and Daschle remain good friends, and we stay in touch.

Hunt: There were filibusters when you were Senate majority leader, mainly on big controversies. These days, filibusters are routine, requiring 60 votes to get things done. How much of an impediment is that?

Dole: I think the requirement of 60 votes is not an impediment.  It protects the rights of the minority, Democrats or Republicans.

Hunt: You came to the Senate from the House -- becoming the patron saint of all House-ophiles when you said that your move had raised the average intelligence of both bodies. That move was considered a natural progression in those days, and your House background was presumed to make you a better Senator. Today, House members come to the Senate with a more confrontational attitude. Does that matter?

Dole: When I first came to the Senate, I didn’t speak extensively on the floor. My first real speech was on April 14, 1968, when I spoke about Americans with disabilities. I did not have an agenda, as some of the freshman Senators now seem to have.

Hunt: There's something else missing today: humor. There are no Bob Doles, Mo Udalls or Alan Simpsons.

Dole: I always felt humor was important to break the tension; as long as it wasn’t personal, it was generally successful. Humor is more effective if you poke fun at yourself and not one of your colleagues. I recently sent two humor books that I wrote to Senator Ted Cruz, who had said there was not adequate humor in the Senate today. I hope he read them.

Hunt: Who was the best Democratic legislator you ever worked against and occasionally with?

Dole: Senator Mitchell. It’s a close call, but I believe Mitchell was a brilliant leader. Senator Byrd was, of course, the “dean of the Senate” and used to give us history lessons on things that happened in the 16th century, which generally cleared the chamber. Of course, Senator Daschle and I were very good friends, too.

Hunt: You were chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during a critical time in the early 1980s. Congress enacted huge tax cuts but then you led an effort to recoup some of the lost revenue over the next few years. Now, Republican presidential candidates are proposing massive tax cuts weighted to upper-income earners with no way of covering the lost revenue. Is this deja vu?

Dole: In 1981, the Kemp-Roth bill became law. Then for the next two years the Senate Finance Committee tried to correct some of the provisions that gave big business huge tax cuts. I remember Newt Gingrich later calling me the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Reagan had no objection to what we did. I cannot speak for Newt’s motives.

Hunt: Your political idol was a Kansan, Dwight Eisenhower. Would Ike and Reagan be comfortable with today’s Republican Party?

Dole: I believe Ike would have trouble getting the nomination today. Reagan probably could, but the party has become more conservative and some -- but not a majority -- have moved far to the right.

Hunt: You’ve enjoyed an extraordinary career -- what are you most proud of?

Dole: As I look back on my career, I believe the bipartisan passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and rescuing Social Security in 1983 are the things of which I’m most proud. I was involved in a number of other important issues -- veterans issues, animal welfare, support for low-income Americans – but those two stand out.

Hunt: You personally lobbied the last Congress to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, a treaty that would have brought most other countries in line with U.S. policies on disabilities. It failed because of Republican opposition. Do you harbor any realistic hope of a more conservative Senate passing it now? 

Dole: I don’t think there has been any recent push on the CRPD, but I believe we have a number of new Senators who would be sympathetic to the issue. We have all the Democrats on board, so we just need to focus right now on the Republicans. We have nearly a dozen committed and several good prospects. As you know, you never give up when something this important is at stake.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net