With the exception of President Ronald Reagan, Bob 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 12 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: For all your differences, you had productive relationships with Democratic leaders Robert Byrd (West Virginia) and George Mitchell (Maine). How?
Dole: I had good working relationships with Senators Mitchell and Byrd — as well as Senator Tom Daschle (South Dakota) — 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.
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.
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 (Georgia Rep.) 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.
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.