A couple days before Christmas 1995, then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole grew fed up with his negotiating partners in Newt Gingrich’s House of Representatives and the Clinton White House.
“It’s time for adult leadership,” the Kansas Republican declared during a Senate floor speech.
Using a favorite phrase of his tenure as one of Washington’s most prominent figures, Dole emerged as the leader in talks to reopen the federal government amid a budget standoff pitting the House speaker, Gingrich (R-Ga.), against President Bill Clinton.
That “adult leadership” made a rare appearance Wednesday in the Capitol. President Trump and the bipartisan leadership awarded Dole, 94, with the Congressional Gold Medal, and it served as a stark contrast to today’s partisan toxicity, the whiff of another shutdown in the air.
This fight pits Trump’s demands for border security funds against Democratic insistence on resolving the status of nearly 1 million immigrants brought here illegally as children. By the time Dole finished his speech in the Capitol Rotunda, Trump and Congress had roughly 55 hours to figure out how to keep federal agencies running amid Democratic threats to withhold votes on a short-term funding bill if there’s no resolution to the immigration dispute.
The only government shutdowns of the past 30 years involved divided government, with Republicans running at least one chamber of Congress and Democrats in the Oval Office. Today, Republicans rule the entire roost but still cannot guarantee national parks will open Saturday morning and border agents will get paid on time.
“We’re gathering [Wednesday] in the Rotunda to honor a man, where everybody in the room can’t seem to agree on — I mean, there’s very little we agree on,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who counts Dole as a mentor and sponsored the bill awarding him one of the nation’s top civilian honors.
Parts of today’s standoff would seem familiar to Dole — Trump’s larger-than-life personality and his embrace of contradictory positions on any given day dominate the talks in a way that Gingrich’s temperamental nature fueled the 1995-1996 shutdown negotiations. Those talks hit a rocky point when Gingrich, traveling to and from a state funeral in Israel, complained about his seating assignment in the back of Air Force One. Last week, negotiations were derailed after Trump used a vulgar term in explaining his desire to limit immigrants from Haiti and African nations.
What’s truly different is the diminished stature of Washington, with a president who is opposed by more than half of Americans and congressional leaders whose image is so abysmal they are regularly used as the villains in political hit ads.
Dole, in a wheelchair, spoke briefly and then had his wife, former senator Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), read his prepared remarks, which were punctuated by a metaphor about the view from the Senate leader’s balcony at the Capitol. It sweeps across the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery — and should compel lawmakers to embrace one another and understand the stakes.
“Leadership begins with the long view,” Elizabeth Dole said, reciting her husband’s words.
For sure, Dole wasn’t always a collegial negotiator. The government did not immediately reopen upon his taking charge of the talks. It took a couple more weeks, and then 18 more months for a big, long-term deal that led to a balanced budget, after Dole had left office. He was a partisan — chairman of the Republican National Committee during President Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, an aggressive vice-presidential nominee in 1976 attacking “Democrat wars” and a three-time contender for the presidency.
But Dole’s leadership set a tone that established boundaries and decorum, allowing for fierce debates that still left enough personal goodwill for bipartisan dealmaking on those issues that needed it.
The 18 months that followed the mid-1990s shutdown produced a steady dose of big bipartisan deals, on welfare, raising the minimum wage and the budget.
Such an outcome should not be expected over the next year and a half.
Once Dole helped settle the shutdown, it was 18 years before the federal government shut down again.
Roberts said there has not been a leader like him since — and probably won’t be another. “Whether Bob Dole or somebody like him could come to the floor, I don’t know, it would take a very special person to do that,” he said.
Dole’s life story helped forge an identity that had gravitas and a character that was built around the hard policy work in one of the most important Senate panels, the Finance Committee.
Raised in Russell, Kan., Dole enlisted in the Army in 1942, serving in the 10th Mountain Division in Europe. He suffered brutal injuries in a 1945 battle in Italy, after which he went through rehabilitation at an Army hospital in Michigan. A gifted athlete in his youth, Dole lost the use of his right hand and arm, teaching himself to become left-handed while folding his arm in a natural-looking position.
At the hospital Dole bonded with two other wounded veterans, future senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Phil Hart (D-Mich.). The trio would go on to serve more than 100 combined years in Congress.
After failing to secure the 1980 presidential nomination, Dole became Finance Committee chairman and then majority leader in 1985, leading Senate Republicans until he locked up the 1996 GOP presidential nomination and resigned his seat. Dole’s tenure stood out for some major bipartisan achievements, particularly the 1986 overhaul of the tax code.
A few months in the summer and fall 1990 summed up Dole’s style. Another fierce budget fight ended with Democrats forcing President George H.W. Bush to break his pledge on raising taxes. Yet during that summer, Dole worked closely with Democrats such as Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“We stood with many who couldn’t stand on their own,” Dole said during his 1996 farewell speech to the Senate.
A December 2012 Dole appearance at the Capitol reflected the changing political environment. Dole sat in a wheelchair on the Senate floor, a visible proponent of a treaty with the United Nations to impose international standards on how to treat the disabled. But mainstream Republicans caved to opposition from far-right conservatives, scuttling the pact.
Back in late 1995, as he geared up to challenge Clinton, Dole backed the administration’s military intervention into Bosnia, a controversial stand given conservative dislike of Clinton for his avoidance of the Vietnam draft.
“I know I’ll get a few whacks out there, but I’ve been around here long enough to know that at this point we shouldn’t be so partisan,” Dole said.