As former Sen. Bob Dole is laid to rest on Friday, let us not lay to rest important lessons we should draw from his life and leadership. Many of these are lessons I learned growing up, as he did, in the plains state of Kansas. But they are also things I observed working as an intern in his Senate office and keeping up with him over the years.
Raised in the small town of Russell, Kansas, where former Sen. Arlen Specter and billionaire Philip Anschutz were also reared, Dole was truly a Kansas conservative. Unfortunately, that political species is nearly extinct, emphasizing a pragmatic and values-centered conservatism, not the narrow political ideology many on the Right embrace today. It was how political philosopher Willmoore Kendall described his fellow Oklahomans: conservative “in their hips.” It was a Dwight D. Eisenhower (from Abilene, Kansas) conservatism that focused on virtues such as modesty, responsibility, and duty.
A pragmatic conservative such as Dole wanted the government to work for the people. He wasn’t eager to grow the government or its role in people’s lives, but he also wasn’t the anti-government leader we often see in the Republican Party today. In the wake of COVID-19, when nothing seems to work anymore, wouldn’t we like to see political leaders committed to making the government work for us? Trying to balance the budget, making sure Social Security did not go bankrupt, ensuring veterans and others who deserved government help actually received it — these were pragmatic conservative priorities of Bob Dole we could use today.
Although he wasn’t much for marketing labels, Dole was the original compassionate conservative, a term later credited to George W. Bush. Grievously injured in World War II, Dole was in a full-body cast, spent three years on his back in recovery, and was forever hampered by disability. No doubt this helped him see the needs of others, and most of his signature legislative accomplishments reflect that care and concern — from the Americans With Disabilities Act to food and nutrition assistance, veterans benefits, and saving Social Security. Dole believed there was a role for the government for those with special needs.
Much has been said about his now rare bipartisanship, which is also true. Most of his major legislative accomplishments were made with rivals from the other party — Sens. Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Tom Daschle, and others. Sadly, it’s difficult to imagine that sort of bipartisanship today, and that alone is an important Dole legacy.
But there are two other commitments that made his bipartisanship so effective and so absent in today’s Washington leadership. Dole believed in the importance and dignity of the Senate itself as an institution. And he believed in governing, in working together with others to meet the needs of the people.
Sadly, our senators today largely believe in their party affiliation more strongly than the institution they serve. They spend their time raising money, giving speeches, and even casting votes not to govern but to make political statements and be reelected. The U.S. Senate, once called the world’s greatest deliberative body, hardly deliberates anymore. It is now a political platform for its members, not a real seat for governing.
Dole was from America’s “greatest generation,” cut from a different cloth. But there is no reason his lessons of pragmatic conservatism — making government work for the needy, seeking bipartisanship, and respecting institution and governance — couldn't come to the fore again. That would be the best way to honor Sen. Dole.
David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center.