Remembering Bob Dole and the halcyon days when Democrats were still sane

The passing of a political giant is a great time for introspection.  The most important question facing America today is why Democrats have abandoned virtually every single position they held just 25 years ago when Bob Dole ran for the Presidency against William Jefferson Clinton. Today, the would hate Clinton for the middle name alone.

Senator and former Presidential candidate Bob Dole passed away peacefully in his sleep this Sunday morning.  More so than anyone else, Mr. Dole is the figure that first piqued my interest in politics.  To this day, I’m not sure if it was some affection for him specifically or if I was just coming of age during my junior year of college.  Either way, the first campaign I watched closely was his losing 1996 presidential bid against Bill Clinton.  It was the first time I’d ever watched a Presidential Debate in its entirety and or stayed up to watch the returns come in on election night, traditions that I would keep for the next 25 years.

Mr. Dole himself was a remarkable man, a war hero and, at the time of his retirement, the longest serving Senate leader in Republican history.  His story was typically American:  Born Robert J. Dole on July 22, 1923 in the small town of Russell, Kansas, population of about 5,000.  His mother sold sewing machines and his father had a retail dairy.  He ultimately earned a spot as a premed student at the University of Kansas, playing both football and basketball at the collegiate level, but was summoned to active duty in World War II before graduation.  He served with distinction in the European theater for two years before being severely wounded while attempting to rescue a fallen comrade during an attack on a German position in Po Valley, Northern Italy.  The injury occured just two weeks before the end of the war and Mr. Dole would spend the next three years recovering in Battle Creek, Michigan, requiring multiple surgeries and rehabilitations.  He would never recover the use of his left hand.

During his convalescence, Mr. Dole would meet two Senate colleagues who were also injured, Philip A. Hart, a Democrat from Michigan and Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, both of whom would become close friends.  In the meantime, the GI Bill allowed him to return to college.  After a year in Arizona, he returned to Kansas and graduated from Washburn University, intent on pursuing a career in politics.  Ironically, both of Mr. Dole’s parents were Democrats, but Kansas was deeply Republican even back then.  He launched his political career by ousting a Democrat from the state legislature in 1950 and was also elected prosecutor for his county two years later, almost immediately after receiving his law degree.  He would spend eight years in that role before winning a seat in the House of Representatives.  Eight years later he won his Senate seat in 1968 and served there for almost 30 years, until his Presidential run in 1996.

Throughout it all, Mr. Dole saw himself as the living embodiment of the American dream, believing his injury only prompted him to work harder.  “I do try harder,” he said once. “If I didn’t, I’d be sitting in a rest home in a rocker, drawing disability.”  This statement applied to fierce partisan battles as much as anything else.  As a Senator, Mr. Dole was known as staunch defender of Richard Nixon, called a “hatchet man” even by members of his own party, and was considered much more abrasive than his GOP leader predecessor, Howard H. Baker, Jr. “I don’t wait for the consensus,” he said about exercising political power. “I try to help build it.” He was also known to have a pragmatic streak and as a dealmaker, fond of quoting German politician, Otto von Bismark’s adage, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

Unfortunately for him, Mr. Dole was never able to translate these skills into a presidential bid, having sought the presidency three times with no success.  On his final attempt at 73 years old, he would lose handily to Bill Clinton after a lengthy record of accomplishment in the Senate, covering everything from food stamps and school lunch, disability protections, updates to environmental laws, all with a reputation for being a deficit hawk and a staunch proponent of limited government.  He officially retired from politics after the national loss, though he maintained a strong presence behind the scenes as he enjoyed a resurgence in public goodwill after appearing in advertisements for Viagra and Pepsi, including a famous ad with Britney Spears.

All told, Bob Dole was a great American and he will be missed.  He should be remembered fondly by all.

Alas, his life and legacy are already being exploited by the media in yet another installment of the only good Republican is a dead Republican.  Long before the funeral, the usual suspects got busy eulogizing the bygone days of Republican greatness, comparing the giants of the past to the retrograde cretins of today.  CNN typified this approach with an “analysis” by Gregory Krieg claiming that “Doles’ death prompts nostalgia for a bygone era sullied by Trump’s GOP.”  In his mind, we’re mourning both the man and “a more outwardly collegial era as Republicans drive the country toward another debt ceiling deadline crisis and party leadership downplays dangerous radicalism in its ranks.”  Incredibly, Mr. Krieg writes this even while taking shots at Dole himself.  Claiming he has a “complicated legacy” and was “emblematic of the Republican Party’s souring stew,” plus, horror of horrors, he was a “relatively early ally of then-candidate Donald Trump.”  Ultimately, “in the kindest assessment, Dole appeared to either misunderstand or underestimate the anti-democratic agenda of the right-wing movement that now dominates Republican politics.”

This framing is incredibly rich for two reasons.  First, the media wasn’t exactly a fan of Bob Dole back when he was a politician, as evidenced by Mr. Krieg’s undertone that Dole himself was the precursor of our current rancor.  Back then, Senator and then candidate Dole was routinely depicted as a taciturn, abrasive, and out of touch old man who had no business being near the Oval Office.  The extent of their dislike extended even to making fun of his paralyzed hand and just about everything else.  One incident in particular is emblematic of their approach, complete with an echo of the election last year:  A feeding frenzy ensued after Mr. Dole fell from a stage when a railing gave way at a campaign event on September 18, 1996.  The footage of his fall was aired relentlessly, as if a minor accident disqualified him from holding office.  As the Orlando Sentinel put it, “the televised image of his painful grimace underscored the age difference between him and Clinton,” which was precisely their intention of course.  Some things never change:  They used the same playbook when then-President Trump walked gingerly down a ramp at West Point last year, but not when President Biden fell walking up the steps to Air Force One.

Second, it never, ever seems to occur to anyone in the mainstream media that both parties have changed over the years, some more than others as we shall see.  Rather, the increasing polarization of American politics is routinely depicted as a product of Republican recalcitrance, as if all of our problems were the result of the GOP alone.  In other words, these eulogies for dead politicians are all predicated on a simple subtext: Today’s Republican Party is the cause of our suffering, if only conservatives would act like they used to, whether it be the 70’s under Gerald Ford, the 80’s under Ronald Reagan, or now the 90’s under Bob Dole, the world would be a much better place.

Instead, I would suggest that we take a moment to consider how radically the Democrat Party itself has changed since the 1996 campaign.  In those days, President Clinton sounded downright Republican frequently enough.  At his State of the Union Address early that year, he declared “the era of big government is over.”  He would shortly sign the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, fulfilling one of his original campaign promises to “end welfare as we know it.”  President Clinton would accomplish this by instituting work requirements and other reforms that Democrats have since gutted and turned against, entirely.  He would also balance the budget for the last time in history, and, after suffering a political setback over a universal healthcare plan, he proposed no other big spending initiatives, earning a reputation as a cost conscious, economically successful president who cut the capital gains tax to launch an era of peace and prosperity.

The contrast with current President Joe Biden could not be any starker:  All Democrats propose circa 2021 is ever bigger government, more spending, and higher taxes.  The only question is how much and how soon, to the point where progressive hero Senator Bernie Sanders claimed they couldn’t possibly trim a single penny off a proposed $3.5 trillion spending spree.  Nor are taxes and government spending the only areas where modern day Democrats have completely changed direction.  President Clinton also signed the now maligned 1994 Violent Crime and Control Law Enforcement Act, ironically with an assist in the Senate from then-Senator Biden.  It remains the largest single crime bill in the history of the United States, complete with funding for 100,000 new police officers and $9.7 billion for prisons.  The bill even expanded the federal death penalty.  President Clinton was also reasonably tough on the border, signing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.  The legislation fast tracked deportations, especially for criminal illegal aliens.  President Clinton himself said, the bill would strengthen “the rule of law by cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, in the workplace, and in the criminal justice system — without punishing those living in the United States legally.”

Neither, or anything like it, would have a chance in the Democrat party of today.  They are now the party of abolishing prisons and opening the borders, obsessed with race and white supremacy above all else, but don’t take my word for it.  Long time Democrat Andrew Sullivan made much the same point earlier this year.  He wrote, “ask yourself: is nothing going on here but Republican propaganda and guile? Can you not see that the Republicans may be acting, but they are also reacting — reacting against something that is right in front of our noses?  What is it? It is, I’d argue, the sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites.” Mr. Sullivan doesn’t even need to go back as far as Bill Clinton.  Instead, he quotes former President Barack Obama on the anniversary of the legendary Civil Rights march on Selma, Alabama.  “That was a great celebration of African-American history.” Then-candidate Obama’s reply:  “No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history.”

Mr. Sullivan also notes how many of Obama’s statements are an outright repudiation of the Critical Race Theory that dominates Democrat thinking.  He quotes the former President’s famous Jeremiah Wright speech during the 2008 campaign after videos surfaced of the Reverend saying “God Damn America.”  “They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America… The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”  This, of course, is the precise opposite of what Democrats say today.  A Democrat politician making statements like this would likely lose a primary except in the most conservative districts.

The truth is inescapable:  On almost every single issue, the modern Democrat party has either completed changed direction – the economy, policing, the border, national defense – adopting positions that are the opposite of what they held 25 years ago, or they have created entirely new issues and embraced new theories – the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, white supremacy, and white privilege.  Perhaps more frightening, this is true of both the policy and the process:  Bill Clinton never passed major legislation on a party line vote, never mentioned packing the Supreme Court, and never considered eliminating the filibuster even after losing the House of Representatives in the Republican Revolution of 1994.  Instead, he focused on creating consensus, a technique then referred to as triangulation, and passing bipartisan bills.

One party, however, has since completely abandoned that process and repudiated many of those very bills.  Therefore, only in the minds of the media are the Republicans the ones who need to reach back to the halcyon days of the past to recover their true purpose.  Back in the real world, the Democrats should be reading up on Bill Clinton and figuring out where they went wrong, on the policies, the process, and, unfortunately for us all, the results.  For all his personal failings, Bill Clinton is remembered for a booming economy and a generally peaceful era.  Essentially, the inverse of what we have today.  President Joe Biden would likely sell his soul for the same results. One final irony: President Bill Clinton’s middle name is Jefferson. Today’s Democrats can’t even stand that, having just removed an offensive statue of the Founder in New York City, consigning one of the greatest Americans to the dustbin of history. Symbolically, that says it all.

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