Bob Dole, now 92 and in a wheelchair, made a rare return visit to Congress on Monday to celebrate this week’s 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – the sort of big bipartisan triumph of yore that now seems unimaginable.
How, I asked Dole, can we get back to the days when Washington worked?
“Get us back in Congress,” Dole quipped.
The Kansas Republican, in his nearly 28 years in the Senate, was one of the great legislators of the 20th century. But the sad truth is Dole, even if he wanted to serve, probably couldn’t be elected to Congress as a Republican today, much less become Senate majority leader or the party’s presidential nominee. Neither could George H.W. Bush, who signed the ADA into law. Both would be dubbed RINOs – Republicans in Name Only – because of their nasty habit of compromise.
There are several reasons for the decline in Washington’s functionality, including the growing polarization of both parties and the obvious reality that Dole’s Republican Party has gone particularly bonkers. Dole, joined in the Capitol complex by other veterans of the 1990 ADA effort – Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., former senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former Rep. Steve Bartlett, R-Texas – spoke with disdain of the 50-odd Republican members of the House who refuse to compromise on anything: “I don’t know what they are,” he said.
But Dole also attributed the decline to the lost art of friendship.
“We were D’s and R’s, but beyond that we were friends,” he said. “We worked together because it was the right thing to do.” Dole spoke of “friends on both sides of the aisle” scratching each other’s backs. “Sometimes we’d vote with Democrats, sometimes they would vote with us,” he said. “In some cases you can’t agree, and you just vote. But I think in most cases you can work it out.”
Dole’s talk of friendship sounded particularly quaint on Monday, following another low in interpersonal relations on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, struggling in his presidential bid, went on the Senate floor Friday and called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, a liar.
“Not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over again, was a simple lie,” said Cruz, upset that McConnell allowed a vote to renew the Export-Import Bank despite what Cruz felt were assurances to the contrary. “I cannot believe he would tell a flat-out lie.”
Hoyer singled out this “egregious violation of civility” – a break with the long-standing custom in the Senate of refraining from attacks on fellow members’ integrity. With Dole nodding vigorous agreement, Hoyer also defended House Republican leaders in their struggles with rebellious conservatives: “Speaker (John) Boehner, I think, is not the problem, but he has some people who are not cooperating with their own leadership.”
As would happen two decades later during the Obamacare fight, there were bitter partisan squabbles during the ADA debate, and some serious opposition from business. But there was a crucial difference. “I never heard anyone ever say, ‘No, we can’t do it,’” recalled Harkin, a key figure in both the ADA and Obamacare. “There was no one who said, ‘No, we’ve got to stop this.’”
Dole, in retirement, has seen the change, too. In 2012, he pushed for the Senate to ratify a U.N. treaty protecting those with disabilities. But the Republicans rebuffed him, leaving America in the company of Congo and Ghana as nations that haven’t joined the treaty.
Dole’s view, that “‘compromise' is not a bad word,” prevailed in the days when ADA became law, before Newt Gingrich’s rise. That’s when members of the Greatest Generation, including war-wounded Dole, still dominated politics and governed with a sense that country was above party. The camaraderie of those times seemed anachronistic when reprised during Monday’s commemoration at the Capitol.
Dole, frail but sharp, offered a bit of optimism, both for the future of bipartisanship – “I see a little hope that things are going to get back to where they were,” he said – and for his own longevity: “I just turned 92 last Wednesday, and I’m looking forward to my 102nd birthday.”
Wait: That’s 10 years – and a Senate term is only six.
Dole in ’16?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.