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What we can learn from Bob Dole

As America mourns the loss of former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), it is natural to reflect on his career as one of the Senate’s true giants. As tributes pour in from both sides of our partisan divide, the real tribute to the life and legacy of Sen. Dole would be remembering and applying how he approached political leadership.                                                                                                                         

It would be revisionist history to believe the genial man from Russell, Kan., was anything but partisan. A lifelong Republican, he led the party in the Senate for more than a decade—primarily in the minority—was a nominee for vice president, and campaigned for president twice, winning the nomination in 1996. These are not positions sought or held without indomitable toughness.

Sen. Dole’s career in politics was grounded in principles for which he tenaciously advocated, and yet we can list all the significant legislation that was enacted as a result of his willingness to compromise where compromise could be had.

America is and will always be better for it. Wheelchair ramps across our country, hot lunches handed to hungry children at school and Social Security checks mailed at the beginning of each month demonstrate the result of policies forged through compromise.

Sen. Dole understood the horse-trading of politics – giving in order to get. His criticism of opponents, including members of his own party, could be as sharp as the quips on primetime cable news today, but he was rarely unfair or showed disrespect to those who he disagreed with. 

Therein lie the most important lessons Sen. Dole’s career provides for those currently in office, myself included, and the voters who put us there. First, staying true to conviction does not preclude working to find common ground. The starting point of our political discourse must be that others are working in good faith rather than playing “gotcha” politics. Rarely in politics do we get everything we want, but an agreement that doesn’t sacrifice core principles almost always exists.

Second, in his farewell speech to the Senate in 1996, he emphasized the importance of civility. Sen. Dole, a Purple Heart hero of World War II, had perspective on what was a matter of life and death. Politics didn’t meet the bar. We can disagree vehemently without being disagreeable. Our starting point must be that our opponents are offering competing ideas in good faith. He knew the value of humor, trading a joke to lighten a tense situation. 

Third, the man whose Senate seat I hold and desk I occupy on the Senate floor had undiminished optimism in our nation and its democratic institutions. We can lose and be gracious, confident that we can persuade voters that our ideas are the right ones not just for our respective states, but for the country as a whole. Sen. Dole stated in his farewell speech that he believed that our best days remain ahead. If we fail to believe that 25 years later, doom will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Never particularly popular, Congress today is viewed as dysfunctional, with only one in five Americans approving of the body that represents them. But Americans do recognize leadership, as evidenced by the outpouring of honor bestowed on Sen. Dole, as well as for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) whose coffins were also placed in the Capitol Rotunda for Americans to pay their respects. If Congress is to earn back the trust of Americans, then we individuals who comprise it must aspire to do better.

Sen. Dole’s conduct in politics and the relationships he made earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom — awarded not from a president of his own party — but from Democratic President Bill Clinton who Sen. Dole tried hard to unseat during the 1996 presidential election.

The memory of Sen. Dole as a bipartisan moderate has never been accurate, but how he conducted himself in office as a lifelong Republican to give us that memory provides us much to learn and emulate.

Moran is the senior senator from Kansas and currently holds the seat Dole held in the U.S. Senate.

Tags Bill Clinton John Lewis John McCain

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