With the exception of President Reagan, Bob Dole 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.
Dole could be a strong partisan – he was Republican Party chairman during the Nixon administration. But he also worked with Democrats, including liberals such as former Sens. George Mitchell and George McGovern on issues including food stamps and hunger assistance for the poor.
At 91, Dole 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.
Hunt: We’re often nostalgic for the past. A generation ago you were a dominant player; was the Senate, and politics, really better then?
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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 Sens. Mitchell and Byrd – as well as Sen. Tom Daschle – primarily because we developed friendship and trust and never tried to surprise one another on the Senate floor…. In fact, I used to go to Sen. Byrd when I had a problem I didn’t know how to answer – and he was always helpful. Sens. 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: 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 Sen. Ted Cruz, who had said there was not adequate humor in the Senate today. I hope he read them.
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.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.