Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.
To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.
Republicans do need to spend time rethinking their strategies this year and as our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson pointed out in their seminal COMMENTARY article on the subject earlier this year, there is plenty of room for change in the GOP. But whatever path the party ultimately chooses, the last thing they need to do is to channel the spirit Dole. That is, unless they want to repeat his legislative futility or his defeat in the 1996 presidential election.
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.
For all of their faults, today’s Republicans, including the Tea Party and its firebrands like Cruz, are willing to articulate conservative principles in a way that can energize the party. If the GOP is ever to win back the White House it’s going to be under the leadership of someone who can tap into that enthusiasm, not a latter-day Eisenhower Republican. The party has already tried that course and failed several times. As much as we should venerate Dole as an elder statesman and war hero, the GOP needs to use his career as an example of what not to do more than anything else.