Viewing the Republican race through the Bob Dole prism

     Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., appears at a rally for Sen. Pat Roberts in Overland Park, Kan., Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. (Orlin Wagner/AP Photo)

    Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., appears at a rally for Sen. Pat Roberts in Overland Park, Kan., Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. (Orlin Wagner/AP Photo)

    Bob Dole turns 92 today. I bet you didn’t know or care. But the old Republican war horse rates a nod if only because he has such a wisely withering opinion of the party he once led.

    And Dole’s opinion is especially relevant now that John Kasich has joined the ’16 Republican freak show. Kasich is a popular two-term governor in swing-state Ohio, and Hillary Clinton’s people fear him as a tough general election opponent – but because the guy has a few moderate positions, he’s probably anathema to right-wing voters and thus is toast in the primaries. Which is the kind of thing that bugs Dole, justifiably so.

    The birthday boy, lest we forget, was the longtime Senate Republican leader who won the ’96 presidential nomination and lost to incumbent Bill Clinton. He’s been an elder statesman ever since – the oldest living presidential candidate – working for a bipartisan lobbying firm and lending his name to a bipartisan policy center. Indeed, his bipartisan creds have made him a dinosaur. Which is also what bugs Dole, justifiably so.

    Interviewed this month in the AARP magazine, he said: “I might not be conservative enough to be the nominee today.” He’s been saying that for a while. When Fox News asked him, two years ago, whether “people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could make it in today’s Republican party,” he replied: “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly, Nixon couldn’t have made it.”

    Which tells you plenty about the ever-rightward tilt of the GOP, as it continues to distance itself from mainstream America.

    Dole in his day was known as a shrill Republican partisan (when he ran for veep in ’76, he said that all the 20th-century conflicts were “Democrat wars”), and he slashed his way through the ’96 campaign by assailing Clinton as a sleazy scandalmonger (“Where’s the outrage?” Dole asked – and this was long before Monica Lewinsky). But the Bob Dole of ’96, if transported to ’16, would be DOA at the dawn of the primary season.

    He eked out a narrow win in the ’96 Iowa caucuses, when (according to the polls that night), only 34 percent of caucus-goers called themselves “very conservative.” When Rick Santorum won Iowa in early ’12, the “very conservative” share of the caucus-goers was 47 percent. No way Dole would make it today. He’d be dismissed as a flaming lefty.

    Actually, Dole had an 82 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. But today that’s a failing grade, because he did some blasphemous stuff that would infuriate today’s extremists. Imagine how far Dole would get in the ’16 race if he highlighted the bipartisan work he did with Senate liberals. In cahoots with George McGovern, he crafted the federal food stamp program – tying it to the annual farm subsidy bill, so that rural Republicans and urban Democrats would all have reasons to vote Yes. In subsequent sessions, he lowered the food stamp eligibility requirements.

    He also co-sponsored the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which established the principle that government should have a role in helping handicapped people. Recapping his cooperative efforts with the liberals, he told The Los Angeles Times, in a 1980 interview, “Nobody works more closely together on a lot of issues than me and McGovern….I did a lot of work with (Hubert) Humphrey – we worked together on farm programs, social programs – and with (Abraham) Ribicoff. I did a lot of work with Abe Ribicoff…and he’ll tell you, on social programs, Bob Dole is a liberal.”

    On social programs, Bob Dole is a liberal….A remark straight from the mouth of Bob Dole. One shudders to imagine what an anti-Dole super PAC would do with that today. And someone like Ted Cruz – whom Dole dismisses as “that extreme right-wing guy” – would embed Dole’s remark on Twitter. And the Fox News blondettes would assail Dole as worse than Obama. And Donald Trump would circulate Dole’s cell number.

    Which brings us to John Kasich. He’s roughly in the Dole tradition: fiscally conservative, socially compassionate, frequently outspoken. He checks lots of right-wing boxes – he has curbed early voting, he’s anti-abortion, he’s tough on labor unions, he has cut taxes, he was a paid Fox News pundit – and unlike other governors in the race (like Christie and Jindal), he’s actually popular in his own state. Which happens to be Ohio – and no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio (you can look it up).

    But.

    Alas, a la Dole, Kasich is less than pure. When he was a congressman back in the ’90s, he voted for an assault weapons ban. Strike one. He has voiced support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform. Strike two. And he took federal money to expand his state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare. Consorting with the Kenyan is definitely strike three.

    Even worse, in the eyes of Republican righties, is the way he has defended his Obamacare embrace: “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

    Oh dear. That’s probably worse than saying you crafted food stamps with George McGovern. In today’s GOP, you’re only allowed to invoke God when it’s time to inveigh against gay people.

    So happy 92nd, Bob Dole. He got it right when he told Fox News, “I think (Republicans) ought to put up a sign on the national committee doors that says, ‘Closed for repairs.'” I’m tempted to say that old age has liberated him to speak bluntly, but that has long been his brand. There was the time, back in ’96, when a right-wing extremist heckled his Senate tenure (Dole had voted to balance the budget by raising a few taxes). I loved Dole’s response. If only today’s cowed Republicans had his stones.

    Dole said, “Get back in your cave.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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