Death of a moderate

Another link with the past snaps. Bob Dole, American war hero, leader of the Republican Party in the Senate for more than a decade and Republican presidential candidate in 1996, died of cancer on Sunday at the age of 98.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (“Liddy”) Dole, who was herself a Republican senator, a cabinet secretary under Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, and a popular contender for the vice-presidential nomination in 1988 – the slot that went instead to Dan Quayle.

There’s only so many times that you can say how much the Republican Party has changed. I said it in 2009 on the death of Jack Kemp, who was Dole’s running mate in 1996 (“They’re not really Jack Kemp’s crowd”), and again in 2014 on the death of Howard Baker, Dole’s predecessor as Senate leader (“We have moved a long way from Howard Baker’s world”).

But Dole was different. It’s not just that he looks moderate in comparison to what the party has since become: Dole was recognised as a moderate at the time. He marks a contrast not just with the conservatives of today, but with those of the 1980s and ’90s. Yet that did not prevent him from rising to the party’s highest offices.

Such a thing is unthinkable today. The last moderate to rise so high was the 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, and he had to temporarily reinvent himself as a conservative for the purpose.

Although Dole always remained loyal to the Republican Party, endorsing Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, it’s no surprise that the tributes to him this week from Democrats, and especially from president Joe Biden, sound rather more heartfelt than anything from his own side.

We shouldn’t overstate the change; there was plenty of nastiness in the GOP in Dole’s time. Sometimes he was the victim, as in the dirty campaign against him by Bush senior for the nomination in 1988. Other times he was more of an accomplice, as in the way he stood by Richard Nixon much longer than most of his colleagues in the 1970s, when he preceded Bush as party chairman.

Nonetheless, the Republican Party of that era, whatever its faults, was a normal political party. It has since become something much more sinister.

The shift was symbolised in the clash between Dole and Newt Gingrich, who led the party in the House of Representatives in the 1990s. Dole blamed Gingrich for poisoning the Republican brand with his confrontational tactics; Gingrich saw Dole as the epitome of the traditional Republicanism that he wanted to overthrow. The bad blood between them was strong enough for Dole to emerge from retirement in 2012 to warn against nominating Gingrich for president.

But although Gingrich lost that contest, he won the battle for the party’s future. It became a party of tribal hatreds rather than policy, from Bush junior down to Sarah Palin and the “tea party”, until Trump completed, as Paul Krugman puts it, “the transformation of American conservatism … into a collection of malignant whiners.”

Whatever else might be said about him, that’s exactly what Bob Dole was not. We may not see his like again.

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