As a congressman in the 1960s, Dole assailed communism abroad and big government at home. He opposed Medicare and LBJ’s anti-poverty programs. Yet he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and in 1966 he favored the Equal Rights Amendment. As a deficit-minded conservative, he opposed President Kennedy’s tax cuts.
In the 1970s, Dole fiercely defended Richard Nixon on the two biggest disasters of his presidency, Vietnam and Watergate. But what Dole chiefly admired in Nixon was his moderation and his selective use of government to help people in need. During the Nixon years, Dole became a staunch advocate of food stamps and school lunches. In his tearful 1994 eulogy at Nixon’s funeral, Dole praised Nixon as a man who “valued accomplishment more than ideology” and “strengthened environmental and nutritional programs,” lines that could hardly be spoken of Reagan or Gingrich.
The Reagan Years
Taxes and budget: Dole’s 1996 campaign video credits him with “leading the fight for President Reagan’s tax cuts.” His 1988 campaign video called him Reagan’s “trusted friend” and “point man.” But Dole was less and more than that. Soon after Reagan’s election in 1980, Dole criticized and tried to shrink Reagan’s tax-cut package, although he eventually capitulated.
Dole soon regretted Reagan’s tax cuts and loopholes, and a year later, he reversed many of them in the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. TEFRA lopped nearly $100 billion off the deficit, primarily by closing corporate loopholes and soaking the wealthy. Dole designed it, persuaded Reagan and Republican senators to support it, and rammed it through despite resistance from House GOP supply-siders and a swarm of special interests. Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen anointed Dole “the architect of the best tax-reform bill in memory.”
Dole secured the passage of another $50 billion tax hike in 1984. That fall, Republican senators elected him majority leader precisely to declare their independence from Reagan. Nominating Dole for the job, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) stressed that Dole would “not cave in to the administration.”
Defense and foreign policy: Although Dole was a solid hawk throughout the 1980s, he was not a fan of Reagan’s massive increases in defense spending. Immediately after his election as majority leader, Dole warned Reagan that Congress would reject reductions in domestic spending unless the Reagan defense buildup were curtailed. In place of Reagan’s military spending hikes, Dole proposed an across-the-board budget freeze. Dole stood with Reagan in support of SDI, funding the Nicaraguan Contras, and invading Grenada, but he was criticized by the right–and credited by the left–for drawing limits to his cooperation on all three policies.
Civil rights: In 1982, Dole engineered the renewal of the Voting Rights Act over the objections of Reagan’s Justice Department. He supported briefs filed with the Supreme Court challenging the Justice Department’s arguments for reversing civil rights laws. And he spearheaded the effort to establish Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
In 1988, Dole ran for president in part as a corrective to Reagan. Republicans, he argued, needed to “reassert that we are a sensitive, compassionate, caring party” capable of attending to the homeless, jobless, and elderly. Dole credited Reagan for fighting taxes and inflation but called Walter Mondale “courageous” for having defended tax increases in his 1984 presidential debate against Reagan.
After Bush was elected president in 1988, Dole collaborated fully with him, but their joint feats included notable departures from Reaganism: the 1991 Civil Rights Bill (albeit diluted), the Americans with Disabilities Act (a major regulatory enterprise), and the 1990 package of tax hikes and budget cuts that betrayed Bush’s “read my lips” pledge. Gingrich denounced the package and enlisted the House Republicans to kill it. Dole, unfazed, defended and passed it.
While masquerading as Reagan’s heir, Dole continues to heap irrepressible skepticism on Reagan’s legacy. Last year, he chided Reagan for inflating the national debt in the name of ideology, mocked Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, for fudging revenue estimates, and continued to insist that the 1990 tax hikes weren’t “all that bad.”