It was difficult to watch Bob Dole on “Fox News Sunday.” Despite his longtime reputation as a crotchety old man, the veteran Kansas senator once defied his age like a Republican Dick Clark. In nearly a dozen years leading Senate Republicans, including two stints as majority leader, he kept a pace that would have tired much younger men.
Dole received this writer’s first vote for president. It is so far my only ballot cast for a Republican presidential nominee without reluctance or regret. This was the era of the dawning Internet boom, when the Iraq War was still a gleam in Bill Kristol’s eye.
Now frail and confined to a wheelchair, Dole is disfigured as much by age and illness as injuries sustained in battle during World War II. Even his familiar voice seems a bit muted, his delivery suddenly slow and halting.
But the nearly 90-year-old Republican elder statesman still flashed his trademark mordant wit, especially when assessing his party. “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas,” Dole cracked.
Dole—who once chaired that national committee at Richard Nixon’s request—wasn’t much kinder to President Obama, whom he dismissed as a “greater golfer” who failed to engage even the Democratic leadership early enough. Naturally, his criticisms of the GOP received more attention.
The man who appeared on two national Republican tickets in 20 years said he doubted he could get very far within the party today. “Reagan couldn’t have made it,” Dole added. “Certainly Nixon could not have made it because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”
This has become a common refrain among a certain kind of Republican. Jeb Bush said much the same thing, throwing his father into the mix of party elders who would be out of step with today’s GOP.
Dole’s legislative accomplishments ranged from being part of the bipartisan majorities that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to playing a key role in the passage of the Reagan economic program. The Republicans of his era were more temperamentally conservative, even if less ideologically so. They believed in balanced budgets and would have been horrified to hear a party leader say “deficits don’t matter.”
Newt Gingrich, who became Dole’s partner in crime during the GOP Congress of 1995-96, is a good example of the party’s evolved brand. He led Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years, displaying a creativity that past Republican leaders conspicuously lacked. But he was undone by his excesses, cultivating an image of partisanship, over-the-top statements, and a penchant for unpopular crusades.
Today’s GOP is as much Gingrich’s party as Reagan’s or Nixon’s. Chest-beating often replaces prudence, the party frequently makes use of both libertarian and traditionalist themes without taking either of them very seriously.
Yet the party of Bob Dole had its flaws as well. Its fixation on accounting didn’t stop the federal government from getting bigger. Its identity as the party that paid for Democratic spending or aped the same programs on the cheap doomed it to permanent minority status. Its supposed affinity for ideas was marked by indifference to whether those ideas were Nixon’s wage and price controls or Reagan’s deregulation.
Much as the Greatest Generation gave way to the Baby Boomers, the Gingrich Republicans are the frustrated children of the Dole Republicans. Not content to be good losers or to play low-budget liberals, they went for broke. Gingrich was in many respects right to criticize Dole for being the “tax collector of the welfare state.” It was bad policy and worse politics, though it added up better than war and welfare with nobody paying the bill.
Nevertheless, the Baby Boomers always get their way. In his final presidential campaign, ahead of a competitive Arizona primary, Dole lamented with Barry Goldwater that they were now the liberals in the Republican Party. “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want me to be,” Dole would also tell Republicans.
Perhaps the Gingrich Republicans’ progeny will give us a real limited-government party, one that endeavors to keep both taxes and spending as low as possible. It’s an ambitious dream, but no more so than hoping to turn Doles into Reagans.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the newly released Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?