Former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole had some harsh words for his political party recently. In a Fox News Sunday interview, Chris Wallace asked, “You describe the GOP of your generation as Eisenhower Republicans, moderate Republicans. Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan—could you make it in today’s Republican party?” Dole replied, “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, ’cause he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”
Left-wing commentators, sensing an opportunity, swooped in to feign sorrow about the state of their political opponents. The problem, argued the New York Times editorial page, is not simply that the GOP has shifted rightward; the party is no longer capable of constructive governance. A “furiously oppositional Republican party” has “mainstream conservatives like Mr. Dole and Senator John McCain shaking their heads in disgust.” Republicans “want to dismantle government, using whatever crowbar happens to be handy, and they don’t particularly care what traditions of mutual respect get smashed at the same time.”
Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, blogger Ezra Klein argued, “Over the last few years, the Republican party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative.”
Is the left-wing accurately analyzing the problems of the right-wing? For that matter, does Bob Dole understand his own party?
The idea that the GOP has shifted rightward over the last several generations is dubious at best. Consider the behavior of House Republicans during the Great Society Congress of 1965-66. That Congress produced Medicare and Medicaid, federal funding for education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more. On item after item, Republicans in the House opposed or tried to alter drastically these measures. In fact, none other than Bob Dole—then a representative from Kansas—was a regular vote against President Lyndon Johnson’s major reforms. Along with a majority of his own caucus, he voted against Medicare. He voted to reduce spending in LBJ’s war on poverty and retain state authority over funds. He voted against federal funding of elementary and secondary schools. He voted to cut spending for housing assistance. He voted to cut highway beautification programs. He voted to delay implementation of a new minimum wage floor. And so on.
History likewise suggests a skeptical verdict on another liberal complaint of the modern age—that Republicans used to be reliable supporters of the very sorts of programs President Barack Obama has been promulgating. Congressional Republicans opposed Harry Truman’s universal health care program after the 1948 election; Dwight Eisenhower himself disliked it. They opposed Ted Kennedy’s late-1970s proposal. They opposed Bill Clinton’s universal care plan in 1994. As for Obama’s massive 2009 stimulus, Republicans in 1993 successfully filibustered a stimulus that cost a tenth of Obama’s proposal. Leading the charge for the GOP that time? Senate minority leader Bob Dole.
Clinton’s struggles with congressional Republicans during the 103rd Congress of 1993-94 induced from the president a lament that should sound familiar to contemporary ears: He and his advisers were the true “Eisenhower Republicans”; the GOP had gone radically off the cliff. After the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans gained control of Congress and forced a government shutdown over a budget impasse, surely a sign of the disregard for “traditions of mutual respect” that the Times is now tut-tutting over.
Liberal Democrats of the past—far from admiring Republicans for their inherent moderation and good sense—were well aware of the GOP’s tendency to oppose their ideas, which helps explain why the New York Times has not endorsed a Republican presidential nominee in more than half a century. In its endorsement of Bob Dole’s opponent, the paper declared Bill Clinton could offer “protection from Republican excess.” Sound familiar? Of the welfare reform bill of 1996, which Bob Dole helped shepherd through the Senate, the Times editorial board—in a piece headlined “A Sad Day for Poor Children”—bemoaned, “This is not reform, it is punishment.” It denounced the “harsh cut in food stamps,” the “extreme cuts in benefits for disabled children,” the “devastating” impact on cities. The paper derided the bill as “not fair” and “not humane.”