Bob Dole’s politics were hardball, but not toxic

Politics back then were hardly kind, gentle, fair, bipartisan, or politically correct. But Dole never attacked democracy.

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December 17, 2021 - 4:02 PM

Republican challenger Bob Dole, left, waves to the crowd alongside President Bill Clinton at the conclusion of their first debate on Oct. 6, 1996, in Hartford, Connecticut. (Jon Levy/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Now is the time for tributes and reflections on the life of Senator Bob Dole, who died on December 5 at age 98.  Yet, it is important not to romanticize the former Senate Majority Leader from Kansas.  Dole certainly did great things, like spearheading the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and co-sponsoring a landmark expansion of Food Stamps (now called SNAP) with Democratic Senator George McGovern, whom he considered a friend.  He also loved humor and showed he could take a joke with his multiple Saturday Night Live appearances, alongside actors that satirized him.

That said, Dole was also a ruthless partisan.  He defended the Nixon Administration during the Watergate hearings and for the rest of Nixon’s life.  In the 1976 vice-presidential debate, Dole accused Democrats of starting every U.S.-involved war in the 20th century, including World Wars I and II — an absurd statement.  In between, Dole introduced the nation to abortion as a wedge issue, using it to eke out a victory over Dr. Bill Roy in the 1974 midterm election. Dole was a tough politico who knew how to play the game and win, which he often did.  

Politics back then were hardly kind, gentle, fair, bipartisan, or politically correct.  Yet they were different.  Dole could attack a rival on the Senate floor, then socialize with them afterward, as a friend.  He could go the extra mile to kill legislation sponsored by another senator, then team up with that same senator to pass a different bill.  Perhaps most importantly, Dole did not attack American democracy itself.  He did not promote insurrections or conspiracy theories, nor did he tear away at the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution.  With the notable exception of Roy, Dole did not generally try to win by making personal attacks against his opponents.  He kept the focus on their voting records and issue stances — and on that, he could be quite the attack dog.  Still, certain aspects of his opponents’ personal lives remained off-limits.  An excellent example was the 1996 Presidential campaign.  Pressured by consultants to raise the “character issue” against President Clinton, Dole refused to gossip about his opponent’s tumultuous personal life.  When Dole did raise the character issue, it was based upon Clinton’s issue stands and the Whitewater land deal. 

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