Though Dole’s career as a horse-trading legislator stands in stark contrast to Republican stonewalling over the last decade, he was a relatively early ally of then-candidate Donald Trump, endorsing him in May 2016, even as other old lions of the party held out, and was one of the few who attended the GOP convention that year in Cleveland. One of the primary drivers of the Americans With Disabilities Act 26 years earlier, Dole decided to stand with a candidate who openly mocked a disabled reporter. In the kindest assessment, Dole appeared to either misunderstand or underestimate the anti-democratic agenda of the right-wing movement that now dominates Republican politics.
The danger for Republicans in risking backlash from Trump has further complicated business on Capitol Hill, where Congress is facing a series of year-end challenges that GOP lawmakers are either fueling or refusing to help solve.
Only eight senators remain in office from when Dole carried the Republican standard into the 1996 presidential election, when he was handily defeated by the incumbent Democratic President Bill Clinton. On Sunday, Clinton was among the high-profile members of his party to honor an old rival.
“Bob Dole dedicated his entire life to serving the American people, from his heroism in World War II to the 35 years he spent in Congress. After all he gave in the war, he didn’t have to give more. But he did,” Clinton tweeted. “His example should inspire people today and for generations to come.”
Establishment Republicans piled on the praise, while Trump said the GOP “was made stronger by his service.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who inhabits the leadership position Dole once held, was especially effusive.
“Whatever their politics, anyone who saw Bob Dole in action had to admire his character and his profound patriotism,” McConnell said in a statement. “A bright light of patriotic good cheer burned all the way from Bob’s teenage combat heroics through his whole career in Washington through the years since.”
McConnell, who promised during his 2020 reelection campaign to be the “grim reaper” facing Democratic policy proposals if Republicans kept their majority (they did not), applauded Dole for, among other things, “big bipartisan achievements” — a particularly sharp irony given the gridlock on the Hill now.
Similar China policy has already been passed in the Senate, across party lines, but the House has not yet acted on it. Republicans and Democrats have said adding the amendment now to the NDAA would run afoul of the constitutionally dictated process that requires such actions to originate in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged that a version is currently in the works.
Ugly rhetoric from today’s GOP
In previous generations, like Dole’s, these were viewed as matters to be settled outside the partisan arena. But the politicking surrounding these issues might actually count as some of the more tame fights playing out in Congress.
In the House, Democratic leadership is once again weighing how to respond to a vile attack by a Republican on one of its members, with Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado repeatedly suggesting Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is a terrorist.
“She doesn’t have a backpack, she wasn’t dropping it and running so we’re good,” Boebert added, through laughter and applause from the crowd which briefly made her remarks somewhat inaudible.
“I think it’s important for us to say this kind of language, this kind of hate cannot be condoned by the House of Representatives,” Omar said. “We should punish and sanction Boebert by stripping her of her committees, by rebuking her language by doing everything that we can to send a clear and decisive message to the American public that if the Republicans are not going to be adults, and condemn this, that we are going to do that.”
McCarthy has similarly signaled he will not take any material steps to rebuke Boebert, who said on Twitter, “I apologize to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar. I have reached out to her office to speak with her directly. There are plenty of policy differences to focus on without this unnecessary distraction.”
The conversation between Boebert and Omar did not go well. The Democrat said she hung up on Boebert after she “refused to publicly acknowledge her hurtful and dangerous comments” and then “doubled down on her rhetoric.”
Speaking to Tapper, Omar lit into McCarthy, questioning his honesty and willingness to confront members like Boebert, a favorite of the GOP’s far right.
“McCarthy is a liar and a coward,” Omar said. “He doesn’t have the ability to condemn the kind of bigoted Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric that are being trafficked by a member.”
In the Washington Dole leaves behind, GOP leadership’s acceptance of this kind of dangerous language is closer to the norm than the “norms” elder statesmen from both parties, including Biden, now pine after. Whether Dole saw it coming or not, he and many others did little stem the tide. That his now famous 2018 salute at the casket of the late former President George H.W. Bush, his political rival for decades, struck such a nerve underscored the complexity of a man who, so unlike Trump in that and other moments, saw fit to support him in two campaigns.
Still, there were grace notes on Sunday for Dole, whose courage and sacrifice with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division goes unquestioned, along with praise for his work in Congress to, among other things, champion a bill that shored up Social Security in the early 1980s.
“From bravely serving overseas & in Congress, to his fierce advocacy for our veterans & the creation of the WWII Memorial—Senator Bob Dole was an American hero in every sense of the word,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who entered politics as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “May God grant peace to his family & all those across our nation who loved & knew him.”