Dole may still resent Newt Gingrich’s calling him the “tax collector for the welfare state” but the reason why that phrase stuck is that his generation of Republican leaders accepted the premise that their purpose was to work within the existing political structure rather than trying to tear it down and rebuild it. Dole was not the RINO some on the right thought and was, in his own way, as tart a partisan wag as any of his successors in the GOP caucus. But he also represented a spirit of accommodation that went beyond the schmoozing needed to pass legislation when both parties could agree. If the Republican Party moved in a different direction in the early 90’s with Gingrich’s Republican revolution and then later with the Tea Party that rejected the free-spending GOP of the George W. Bush era, it was because there are times when parties need people who will offer a genuine alternative rather than a willingness to compromise principles.
It is also foolish for Dole, or anyone else, to claim that Ronald Reagan would have been rejected by the current brand of Republicans. Reagan was the product of another era and was animated by different key issues such as the need to resist Communism. The paradigm of Cold war conservatism may be able to help today’s Republicans find their way in defending America against contemporary threats but, like it or not, foreign policy no longer defines most politicians. However, it needs to be understood that Reagan took his party as far to the right on domestic issues as he could in his day.
If today’s Republicans are able to articulate a more far-reaching critique of the government leviathan that Reagan despised, it is because they are standing on his shoulders. In Reagan’s days, the party was also divided between more ideological conservatives and the moderates, among whose number Dole was quite prominent. Dole was on the wrong side of that argument. If today’s Republicans reject his style of politics it is not a rejection of Reagan but a continuation of the spirit of conservatism that the 40th president embodied. To claim that he wouldn’t fit in among today’s Republicans makes as much sense as claiming John F. Kennedy or any other figure from the past wouldn’t fit in among today’s Democrats. It’s not so much wrong as it is a non sequitur.
I distinctly remember a National Review cover story back in the early 1990s that took Dole and Bob Michel (the GOP Minority Leader in the House) to task for being a bit too eager to work with the Democrats. On anything. And that was when the Democrat leadership wasn’t hanging out on the Progressive fringe. They have had a couple decades to try and shift what they call the center leftward and the last thing the GOP needs at the moment are coalition builders who want to go over there and meet them.