The remembrances, though, often overlooked — perhaps, ironically, in the name of a bygone decency — Dole’s complicated legacy. The Kansas native, who suffered grievous wounds on the battlefield during World War II before becoming a titan of late 20th century American political life, was in many ways emblematic of the Republican Party’s souring stew.
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.
This past July, Dole said in an interview with USA Today that while he still considered himself a “Trumper,” the actions of the former President and his allies after the 2020 election had left him “sort of Trumped out.”
It was a narrow concession, though more than the vast majority of GOP officials would openly concede. For an aspirational Republican to take a hard stand against Trumpism today is an invitation to being run out of office or the party itself. Georgia’s conservative Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, is expected to get a Trump-backed primary challenger on Monday, when former Sen. David Perdue plans to announce his candidacy, because of Kemp’s unwillingness to kowtow to the former President’s election lies.
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.”
President Joe Biden, who had visited Dole in February shortly after he announced he was being treated for advanced lung cancer, honored Dole by ordering flags to be flown at half-staff and calling his former Senate colleague “a statesman like few in our history and a war hero among the greatest of the Greatest Generation.”
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.
The minority leader, for example, had refused to help Democrats address the debt ceiling after a short-term extension in October, although he later opened talks with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last month. He had blamed the crisis on Democrats — ignoring his own party’s role in running up debts under Trump — and initially insisted his colleagues across the aisle act alone to avoid a potentially catastrophic default. Debt limit fights, which place into doubt the government’s ability to make good on pre-existing obligations, are a relatively new Congressional cudgel, but one the GOP has been willing to embrace despite Democrats voting with them to raise the limit when Republicans were in power.
This coming week, the Senate will return to the table to hash out a must-pass annual defense spending and policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, which has been held up by one Republican senator’s demands to add an amendment placing more import restrictions on Chinese goods manufactured by Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province of China who are in forced labor camps.
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.
“One of my I staffers, on his first day with me, got into an elevator in the Capitol. And in that elevator, we were joined by Ilhan Omar,” Boebert told a crowd in September, as reported by CNN’s KFile last week. “It was just us three in there and I looked over and I said, well, lookey there, it’s the Jihad Squad.”
“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.
The story, a spokesperson for Omar has said, was “a fabrication.” But the pattern of attacks on the Democrat, who is Muslim and was born in Somalia before coming to the US as a refugee and becoming a citizen, is very real. KFile reported on similar comments Boebert made at an event in Colorado last month. Omar on Sunday told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that she expected Pelosi to “take decisive action” against her Republican colleague this week.
“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.”
If that happens, it will be because Democrats, led by Pelosi, vote to make it so, as they did when they voted to censure and strip Republican Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar of his committee assignments after he posted a photoshopped anime video that appears to show him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Just two Republicans — Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney — joined Democrats in that vote, while McCarthy refused to explicitly condemn Gosar’s behavior and instead threatened retaliation over the “new standard” by a future GOP majority.
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.”