The Best and Worst of Bob Dole
By this point, you probably know all about Russell, Kansas, the war wound, and the "mean streak." In an era of personality politics, Bob Dole's personality has been combed over by the very best. We know he's a consummate dealmaker, but that he hates to be boxed in. He's a smooth politician and fiercely loyal, but has an acerbic wit that sometimes gets him in trouble. We know about the great lines ("He could just fly over Kansas in Air Force One," he said when asked if he wanted Nixon to campaign for him) and the disastrous ones ("Democrat wars," "Stop lying about my record").Most of all, we know that Bob Dole really, really wants to be president.But Dole's personality offers little clue as to what he'd do if he achieved that goal. On the campaign trail, the ex-senator says he's no Bill Clinton. But what would he do if he sent Clinton back to Arkansas and -- a distinct possibility -- led a White House backed by a Republican Congress? Fortunately, Dole has left 35 years of footprints. A freshman House member at the dawn of the New Frontier in 1960, he won a Senate seat in 1968, chaired the Finance Committee in the early '80s, and was the Senate Republican leader from 1985 until he stepped down last month.What follows are the high and low moments of those 35 years. At his best, Bob Dole is a fiscal conservative who understands that "sacrifice" means more than cutting programs for the poor, and a skeptic of government activism who nevertheless sees the dangerous excesses of an unfettered marketplace. At his worst, Bob Dole is obeisant to the extreme fringes of his party and to wealthy campaign contributors, eschewing tough choices in favor of political advancement.Obviously, this list reflects certain interests and viewpoints. And no one article can include all of the hundreds of issues Dole has faced in his career. But the facts are revealing nonetheless.Paradoxically, one revealing element is that clear patterns are difficult to discern from this record -- indeed, on many issues Dole has gone to both extremes. Which is the real Dole: the man who inveighs against a gas tax, or the man who voted to raise it 18 times? Is Dole the Gingrich-believer he now claims to be, or the man who made this joke: "You hear Gingrich's staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and one little tiny one. Number one is 'Newt's Ideas.'Number two, 'Newt's Ideas.' Number three, number four -- 'Newt's Ideas.' The little one is 'Newt's Good Ideas.'"These inconsistencies make it all the more important that voters be aware of the candidate's legislative history, both to pressure the candidate to lay out the path he would take as president, and, in the absence of such a clear vision, make their own best judgments about where he would go.THE WORST: NO HELP FOR THE POORMutter the words "Great Society" in Republican circles and you're likely to hear a chorus of jeers -- something akin to talking about Jim Crow at an African-American church. Somehow, a caricatured view of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty agenda persists despite the quite popular programs it put in place. Head Start, the grouping of social, health, and educational services to children from deprived families, was enacted in 1965. That year also saw the introduction of guaranteed student loans for college.Bob Dole voted against both those programs -- and many more. He opposed Medicaid and cast votes against public broadcasting and a teacher corps. By the time Bill Clinton was elected, Dole's opposition to social spending had hardened to such an extent that anything other than jails, weapons, or entitlements for the elderly had become "pork." In recent years, he's raised that cry against crime prevention, education, and national service programs.Dole has shown a similar tendency to oppose requirements that the private sector pay decent wages to the working poor. He opposed increases in the minimum wage in 1961, 1966, 1972, 1973, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1995, and 1996. Although he made tepid offers to bring a vote on the most recent minimum wage hike -- in exchange for a gas tax reduction -- he resigned from the Senate without having done so.Meanwhile, since 1961 Dole has voted to raise his own pay seven times. Over that 35-year period, the Senator's pay has increased 50 percent more than the minimum wage.THE BEST: DEFENDING THE HUNGRYA striking exception to Dole's opposition to social spending is his championing of programs to help feed the poor. He was converted to the cause when he joined the Senate select committee on nutrition and human needs, chaired by liberal standard-bearer George McGovern. Together, the senators sponsored a bill in 1975 to expand food stamp benefits to the poor, and thereafter won a major expansion in the school lunch program, inaugurated the Women, Infants, and Children program, and published a seminal report on dietary guidelines for the American public."He was extremely good on those issues," McGovern says. "There was a humanitarian impulse, and, also, it was a way to find new outlets for Kansas farmers. So it was self-interest combined with humanitarian purposes, but he was fully committed.... And he really brought the Republicans around. We put those votes through by votes of two- or three-to-one." Dole showed little patience for fellow Republicans who sought to squeeze money from food programs. When Senator James Buckley, a conservative from New York, tried to toughen requirements for food stamps, Dole joked mordantly: "Do you put in a funeral allowance, for the ones who starve?""Some of these new people seem to think that government is our enemy," McGovern says. "But Dole has never shared that view.... He's never ruled out the possibility or even the need for government action."THE BEST: CIVIL RIGHTS, EQUAL PROTECTIONAnother reminder of Dole's willingness to use government to advance the cause of the vulnerable is his consistent support for civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, for a civil rights/housing law in 1968, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1972. That year, he also voted for a bill putting teeth in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.When the Reagan administration tried to narrow the interpretation of laws against sex discrimination, Dole successfully fought it. He also played an absolutely crucial role in the passage of the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, building bridges between liberals and a resistant Reagan administration. "He was superb," civil rights activist Joseph Rauh told Dole biographer Jake Thompson. "He got us the perfect bill." Though his record is surely mixed on gay issues, he has spoken out broadly against discrimination. Dole also supported the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (though he voted against a similar bill in 1990) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.Dole's very first speech on the Senate floor was a plea for government assistance to the disabled. In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of that speech, Bill Clinton had this to say: "It was one of those magic moments in the history of Congress, and maybe of our country, which reminds us all, for all of our differences, there's a common chord that unites us when we are all at our best."THE WORST: PAC MANDole has regularly voted against campaign finance reform -- most recently in 1993, 1994, and 1995. He voted against limiting radio and TV spending in 1970; against contribution limits in 1973 and 1986; against public financing in 1974, 1977, 1987, and 1990.How does he explain these votes? "We Republicans want no part of shifting our campaign burden to the public," he has said, framing the issue as one of individual responsibility versus state welfare. But, as the Center for Responsive Politics' Ellen Miller is fond of saying, the public can pay for campaign financing up front -- or they can pay on the other end, when politicians do favors for big donors.Dole has raised formidable sums of money -- at least $47.6 million for his Senate and presidential campaigns and his leadership PAC from mid-1973 through 1994, according to Charles Lewis's The Buying of the President. And he has indeed shown a tendency to reward his benefactors. With Dole's help, Ernest and Julio Gallo (who have given more than $1.2 million to Dole's campaigns, PACs, and foundations) received a customized inheritance tax loophole in the 1986 tax reform bill. Dole has also fought off efforts to eliminate the Market Promotion Program, which yielded Gallo more than $23.8 million between 1986 and 1994.And then there is the Archer Daniels Midland Company, the agribusiness giant. Since 1979, ADM and CEO Dwayne Andreas have given Dole's campaigns, PAC, think tank, and foundation close to half a million dollars -- not to mention the $500,000 given by the Andreas Foundation to the Red Cross shortly after Elizabeth Dole took over. Dole has returned the favor with vigorous advocacy of ethanol, a product for which ADM has more than 60 percent of market share. In 1989, for example, Dole blocked a steel import bill until the ethanol excise tax credit was extended until the year 2000. Lewis cites an industry analyst who estimated that, in 1987 alone, ADM would receive $150 million from the federal ethanol program.ADM and Gallo are the famous examples, but there are others. In 1992, Dole won extension of a tax credit to subsidize drillings for natural gas, despite a glut. The credit was worth 92 cents for every dollar of gas sold. One huge beneficiary was the Enron company, which has also given Dole's endeavors more than $100,000 over the years.In 1996, no special interest wants Dole in the White House more than big tobacco, which has donated generously to his campaign. In recent comments criticizing the FDA's plan to regulate tobacco, Dole made it clear he would deliver. He has even portrayed the addictiveness of cigarettes as a debatable issue: "To some people, smoking is addictive," he said just last month. "To others, they can take it or leave it. Most people don't smoke at all.... We know it's not good for kids. But a lot of other things aren't good. Some would say milk's not good." In the past, Dole has consistently favored tobacco price supports and subsidies and, with rare exceptions, opposed cigarette taxes.THE BEST: FAIRER TAXESPublicly enthusiastic, Dole supported the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, though he helped convince the administration to scale back the cuts from 30 percent over three years to 22 percent. But by the following year, the deficit was mushrooming, and Dole began to craft a series of budgets that raised taxes and cut spending. His 1982 budget, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA), sought $98.4 billion in new taxes over three years. Though he certainly bit into the middle class, Dole also went hard after the wealthy individuals and corporations that had benefited most from Reagan's cuts. For example, he cut tax breaks for defense contractors and for "safe harbor" leasing, whereby money-losing companies could sell tax losses to profitable companies. During hearings on TEFRA, Dole is said to have walked outside the Finance Committee room and noted the lobbyists standing "Gucci to Gucci." "They'll be barefoot in the morning," he joked. In 1983, 1984, and 1985, Dole continued to press for fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. Not only did he pick fights with the White House, Dole also led his party down a politically unpopular path. Elected as majority leader in 1985 when Howard Baker stepped down, Dole lost that position in November 1986 when Republicans were ousted as the controlling party in the Senate. Democrats used Dole's budgets -- and his prominent role in restructuring Social Security -- to their advantage in that election.In 1990, Dole played a role in brokering a compromise budget between Democrats and Republicans. He also has a record -- albeit an inconsistent one -- of seeking tax breaks for the most needy Americans. In 1978, he voted for $4.5 billion in tax relief for people making less than $50,000, particularly those making $10,000 to $30,000. And in 1989, he moved to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).THE WORST: WELFARE FOR THE WEALTHYIn 1982, Dole wrote in The Washington Post, "I never defined conservatism as the religion of the propertied few or of those whose voices carry in direct proportion to their wealth." That's the Bob Dole who went after corporate loopholes and insisted that the rich pay a fair share towards reducing the deficit. But Dole has also lurched in the opposite direction. Besides carrying Reagan's water in 1981, Dole in 1995 supported a massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans -- about $19 billion for the wealthiest five percent -- and a $31 billion cut in the EITC for the working poor. Despite Dole's efforts from 1982 to 1985 to distribute the burden of tax increases more fairly, the net effect from 1977 to 1985 was higher rates on the poorest 40 percent and lower rates -- 15.1 percent lower -- on the richest one percent. The damage done in '81 was never fully repaired.Dole's worst moment on budget matters was surely his campaign against the Clinton budget deal in 1993. The hypocrisy is simply spectacular. Dole calls the bill "the largest tax increase in world history." But both in inflation-adjusted dollars and as a percentage of the economy, Dole's tax increases in 1982 were larger. Dole and fellow Republicans also assailed Clinton for not cutting more spending. But his bills in the early '80s had a much higher proportion of tax hikes to spending cuts. In 1983, Dole proposed a plan that would cut $39 billion in spending and raise $75 billion in taxes. In 1982, Dole shepherded -- and Reagan signed -- a budget package with $98.3 billion in tax increases and $17.5 billion in spending cuts over three years. "Dole helped Reagan in '81 and then did penance all the way through the beginning of the '90s," says Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. "Then when Clinton got elected, [Dole] abandoned his adult leadership for childish leadership. The way he's going, he'll be in the womb by the November election."Dole's campaign against government spending is also contradicted by his weak spot for costly weapon systems of dubious merit. Dole voted to support the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative -- which to this day has consumed $43 billion in taxpayer money -- in 1984, 1987, 1988, and 1989. (Fittingly, one of Dole's last two votes in the Senate was for a similar, though less ambitious, missile defense system.)A few examples of other costly weapons systems that won Dole's votes: The B-1B bomber in 1981; the MX Missile in 1981, 1983, 1984, and 1985, and the Trident submarine in 1973.Dole also has a sad record on corporate welfare. He has supported sugar subsidies, for example, while opposing a Clinton proposal to require mining companies to pay fair market rates for federal lands, instead of the giveaway rates of as low as $2.50 an acre.THE BEST: COURAGE ON ENTITLEMENTSThough Republicans are getting a drubbing in the polls for taking on Medicare -- well-deserved, insofar as they seemed to cut the program excessively while giving tax breaks to the rich -- Dole generally deserves credit for his willingness to touch the third rail of American politics: entitlements. All honest assessments of our fiscal future show this country heading over a financial cliff if it follows through on current promises of Social Security and Medicare. But few politicians are willing to take even the mildest steps to correct the problem.Dole has. His early-'80s budgets capped cost-of-living increases on Social Security. In 1983, he joined a commission that made some important changes in overhauling Social Security -- such as delaying COLAs and raising the retirement age to 67 (though not until the year 2027). This highlights another hypocritical element of Dole's fight against Clinton's 1993 budget, which raised taxes on Social Security payments to the well-off.THE WORST: ABANDONING HEALTH CAREIf Dole could take back any one moment in his political career, it might have been this recent comment: "I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare -- one of 12, because we knew it wouldn't work in 1965."Dole did indeed vote against Medicare in 1965. The accusation that he's still the program's enemy could cost him in November. But what's more disturbing about that comment is that it highlights a shameful legacy on health care. A man who prides himself on getting things done, Dole has nevertheless ignored this vexing problem. In 1993 and 1994, he played games with reform - -at first strongly supporting universal coverage, then working to scuttle any reform whatsoever. Most recently, Dole played politics with the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill. If he had agreed to vote on Medical Savings Accounts separately, the bill would have passed easily. But he did not.THE WORST: TRUSTING USED CAR DEALERSDole has never been enthusiastic about regulation to protect consumers, the environment, health, or safety. To his credit, he did vote for a truth in lending bill in 1968, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1972, and for the bill that created the Consumer Product Safety Commission.But a long list of votes against the environment -- "no" on the Clean Air Act in 1963, the Air Quality Standards Act in 1970, and the Clean Water Act extension in 1987, to name just three examples -- may come back to haunt him. That's particularly true after the 104th Congress, when Dole authored a regulatory "reform" package that pleased party zealots and the business lobbies, but would have been a disaster for everyone who cares about safe workplaces, clean air and water, safe food and drugs, and every other area protected by federal regulation. With a 21 percent career rating from the Consumer Federation of America, this is a weak spot for Dole. One of the lowest of the lowlights: In 1982, he voted against a Federal Trade Commission regulation that required used car dealers to tell customers of major defects that the dealers know about.