Former Kansas senator and 1996 GOP candidate for President Bob Dole echoes a complaint from a lot of 1980’s era Republicans; the party has lurched too far to the right.
That the Republican party is more conservative today than it was 30 years ago is beyond dispute. Some might even argue that conservatism itself has been redefined to become far less inclusive, open minded, and tolerant than it was in Dole’s days as well.
But I think what Dole is really talking about is that today’s Republicans are simply too ideological; rigid, unyielding, and allowing passion to govern their intellects rather than logic and reason.
Is this a reaction to what has happened to the Democrats in the same period of time? I don’t doubt that much the same can be said of the other party. But Dole appears more concerned about the tone and temperament coming from his former colleagues in the Senate than with ideological changes
Asked on “Fox News Sunday” if the Senate was broken, Dole responded that “it is bent pretty badly.”
“It seems almost unreal that we can’t get together on a budget, or legislation,” said Dole, who served in the Senate from 1969 to 1996. “We weren’t perfect by a long shot, but at least we got our work done.”
Dole came back to the Senate last December to support a United Nations treaty to bar discrimination against people with disabilities, which failed after a vast majority of Republicans declined to support it.
Dole said in his Fox News interview that he isn’t sure there would be a place for him and other big-time Republicans of his generation, like Presidents Reagan and Nixon, in the current GOP.
“Reagan couldn’t have made it. Certainly, Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it,” said Dole, who called himself a “mainstream conservative Republican.”
“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 said about the current state of his party.
Reagan was the most ideological president in history up to that time. But his geniality and heartfelt passion for America — along with a pragmatic streak that allowed him to work with the Democratic majority in Tip O’Neill’s House to advance some of the most significant legislation of the 20th century — made him a winning politician, one of the most successful in American history.
How would those strengths play in today’s GOP? I think Dole and other critics are wrong to suggest that Reagan couldn’t have made it in the Republican party today. His gifts as a politician would have transcended any disagreements about policy that might have hurt him with many on the right today — just as they did in his own time. In fact, Reagan was never able to satisfy the right on almost anything and ended up hugely disappointing them when he began to deal with Soviet leader Gorbachev, passed massive tax increases in 1982 and 1984, signed off on immigration reform in 1986, and appointed less than conservative cabinet members in his second term.
Reagan would have done very well in any election from 1976 until today. But would his popularity have survived in the internet era? I think his opponents on the right would have been better organized and had a louder megaphone to amplify his weaknesses. But it’s hard to see him failing in any realistic political context.
Dole and Nixon are a different story. Nixon wouldn’t have been able to smell the presidency if he had run in 2012. He despised conservatives and proved it with his actions, creating two of the most problematic federal agencies in Washington; EPA and OSHA. As for Dole, he was a genuine conservative but far too much the compromiser for today’s fire breathers on the right. But Dole could play the partisan hatchet man with the best of them, as he proved running as Ford’s Veep in 1976. His tart tongue and acerbic wit would have won him many admirers in today’s Republican party. But it is doubtful he would have risen as high as he did, being elected Majority Leader when the GOP took control of the Senate in 1995.
There are many Reagan era Republicans who look with scorn on today’s GOP and the right wing takeover of the party. But the essence of America is change, and political parties are not immune. For better or worse, the Republican party is a different beast today than it was then. And the men and women who are most successful in the party understand the lay of the land and adjust to circumstances — just like politicians have been doing since the beginning of the republic.