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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dole Leaves Record as 'Virtuoso'

WASHINGTON -- He came to Congress during the same cold January that John F. Kennedy came to the White House, when Jimmy Carter was still a peanut farmer, Ronald Reagan was nominally a Democrat, and George Bush was just another Texas oil man.


There had been as yet no civil rights revolution, no Great Society, no Vietnam War. The federal government's annual outlays totaled a mere $92 billion, and the budget showed a $300 million surplus.


Thirty-five years later, as Bob Dole prepares to retire as majority leader and senior senator from Kansas, historians can record that he played a part in almost every significant Washington decision made during an era of profound change for the government and the country. As congressman, senator and party leader, Dole had a hand in every battle over taxes and the budget, Medicare and welfare, defense and foreign policy, peace and war.


But unless his current bid for the White House succeeds, Dole's place in history may be cloaked in shadows: well regarded by specialists in congressional leadership but little remembered by the wider audience of future generations. He may rank no higher than a Joe Robinson or a James G. Blaine, earlier masters of the legislative game who forged the compromises and moved the ball forward but created no lasting monuments.


"It is significant that there is no major piece of legislation known as the Dole Act," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "It tells you what kind of leader he's been. His mark can be found on so much, but his influence was extensive, not intensive. He became a kind of legislative virtuoso, a master of the process, not a visionary or a high-concept man."


Three strands form the rope of the legislative career that Dole plans to bring to a close Tuesday:


First, he was an intensely partisan battler, reflecting both his temperament and the status of the Republican Party in Congress for much of his career.


As a junior member of Congress during the '60s, when congressional Republicans appeared likely to be a permanent minority, lambasting the opposition pleased Dole's Republican constituents back home and offered an avenue for advancement within his party nationally.


Second, Dole became an increasingly savvy player of the inside game on Capitol Hill, a role that flourished during the long period of divided government in the 1970s and 1980s, when, except for the four years of Carter's presidency, neither Democrats nor Republicans ever commanded both Congress and the White House.


Third, he has followed the evolutionary path of traditional Republicans, instinctively opposing liberal innovations the first time around but gradually accepting them within some bounds as time wore on.


Thus Dole, who is 72, opposed the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and almost all the other liberal social programs of the Kennedy-Johnson era; but years later, he blunted the slashing attacks on those programs by radical ideologues in his own party.


In keeping with traditional conservative economic principles, he also was the prime mover behind the 1982 tax increase, the biggest ever relative to the size of the economy.


The eventual success of the 1982 Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act may rank as the crowning achievement of Dole's career.


Emblematic of his success, Dole succeeded Howard Baker Jr. as Republican leader in the Senate in 1985, a step upward that was also a step deeper into the rain forest of the legislative process.


Dole, like 19th-century Republican leader Blaine, is in danger of being remembered by most people more for what he failed to do than for what he did.


Blaine sought and failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 and 1880. When he finally captured the nomination in 1884, he lost the election to Grover Cleveland.