What ever happened to Bob Dole style Republicans?

Senator Bob Dole moved from the House to the Senate a year before I started a three-year stint in Washington with former Idaho Senator Len Jordan in 1970. You hear a lot over the Capitol grapevine about various Senators and Dole was a frequent topic of conversation. Word was that he was ambitious, more partisan than most, had lost the use of his right arm in WWII and had a biting wit. Staff did not generally hobnob with Senators, so I never really conversed with him but had the idea that he was a bit ornery.

Having just returned from serving in Vietnam, I agreed with Dole’s hawkish position on the war but thought he went over the top in criticizing Senator George McGovern’s dovish stance. And I was not impressed with his fealty to President Nixon.

However, in the mid-seventies Dole began moving to the middle and working across the aisle. He championed child nutrition programs and food stamps. He proposed a catastrophic health insurance program and opposed the supply-side, trickle-down economic theory fancied by most Republicans. In 1982, Dole engineered passage of a tax bill that closed tax loopholes and cracked down on cheats. He was a disability rights leader, co-authoring the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. None of this would find much support in the present-day GOP.

By the time George H. W. Bush and Dole squared off for the presidential nomination in 1988, I had become a Dole supporter and co-chaired his Idaho effort with my dear friend Lydia Justice-Edwards, who was then Idaho’s State Treasurer. I thought both were worthy candidates but neither would sell well in Republican circles today.

It was moving to hear the tributes made to Senator Dole by people of substance at the memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on December 11. He was honored for his patriotism and heroic service to the United States in the Second World War. Dole’s willingness to work for bipartisan solutions to the country’s problems and to support civil, voting and disability rights were also mentioned. Tributes in major news outlets spoke of a certain amount of partisanship in his later years, but not an ugly variety and never at the expense of America’s national interests.

This latter attribute of country over party brought to mind two other venerated public servants who have been honored in similar ceremonies in the last few years. President George H.W. Bush and Senator John McCain both shared with Dole a history of dedicated service to their country, both in harrowing wartime experience and in dedicated peacetime service in elective politics. The three were Republicans who advanced the policies of their party, but with honorable tactics and not to the detriment of the country or of our democracy. All three were willing to work across the aisle, to compromise with others and to enjoy friendships with their opponents. What has happened to the supply of good people like these? Are they a now-extinct breed of the past?

In looking at the ranks of elected individuals of their party in office today, it is difficult to see any who could measure up to the honor, integrity and civility of these three departed souls. Politics during their time may have been rough and tumble at times, but the disputes were generally over real issues that made a difference to the direction of the country. They would have had little patience for the chaos, hate and division resulting from the invented issues and grievance politics of today.

I could be wrong, but I sense a real hunger in our good state to return to the times of these remarkable people, where public servants worked together to solve public problems, to see to the education of our children, to improve the lives of struggling families, to get away from petty political bickering that serves no purpose. I pray that we are at the point where we realize that we have to live together and work together in common purpose if we hope to survive as a democratic republic. Dole, Bush and McCain got it and they left us a legacy. Can we keep it?

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