Seventeen years and 774 cloture petitions after he left the Senate, Bob Dole celebrated his 90th birthday Monday with the sort of plain-spoken tough love that marked his run as one of the most accomplished congressional leaders of all time.
At an invitation-only Capitol birthday party Tuesday afternoon, his fans will raise a chocolate milkshake toast and wistfully remember what was and what may never be again.
The week won't have the same emotional pull as Dole’s last announced visit to the Capitol, in December, when he pulled himself out his wheelchair before saluting the coffin of his World War II hospital roommate and three-decade Democratic senatorial buddy Daniel K. Inouye.
It won't have the same import as Dole’s last attempt to leverage his elder-statesman status as a lobbyist, that same month, when his personal appeals on the floor could not stop the Senate from spurning an international treaty to protect the rights of disabled people.
Nor does it provide the political punch of his last Sunday show appearance, in May, when he declared that his own Republican Party ought to declare itself “closed for repairs” until it settled on a less obstructionist vision.
But his birthday wishes — expressed with his trademark blast-of-Kansas-prairie-wind brevity — may be more important than any of those moments. They were the bluntest articulation possible of the Senate’s profound challenges.
“The biggest problem today is the lack of trust," he said in an interview Monday with CNN. Asked why, he could not have laid the blame more evenly — except that, as any all-star negotiator would, he decided to lead with an acknowledgment of his own side’s shortcomings: “Sometimes it is the Rs; sometimes it is the Ds.”
From January 1985 to June 1996, when he resigned from the Senate to challenge the re-election of President Bill Clinton, Dole was majority leader for three and a half years and minority leader the rest of the time. No one has been GOP leader for longer.
While there were plenty of legislative impasses and nomination standoffs in those days, there was a palpable sense in the 1980s and 1990s that, in the end, leaders could always work something out that gave the winning side the spoils without leaving the losing side spoiling for a fight.
“There were a lot of differences in the days I was in the Senate,” Dole said. “But in every case we were able to work the out the differences.”
The phrase “nuclear option,” in fact, did not enter the congressional lexicon until nine years after he came in for the last time from “Dole’s beach.” That's what everyone called the fluted-columned balcony, adjacent to his office and steps off the Senate floor, where Dole reached countless bipartisan agreements while taking in the afternoon sun and the grand view down the National Mall.
That such Cold War verbiage has become the defining phrase of the 113th Congress is also the fault of both sides, he says — although, with his well-practiced sardonic wit, he holds the confrontational generation of junior Republicans up for a little extra chiding at the moment.
“A lot of the younger members, they are very smart, they are very capable,” he said. “They have their own ideas: Start a filibuster, rather than compromise."
Clearly, he is glad to not have the task of corralling the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Mike Lee.
Announcing die-hard opposition to a bill that has been marked up in committee or a who nominee had received a hearing is not the way things were done in Dole’s day. If the 60-vote threshold got raised, it was only after all attempts at resolution through the once-normal channels of conversation between the two sides had been exhausted.
His prescription for reducing the frequency of cloture votes, simplistic as it sounds, worked as much to the benefit of the Senate minority as for the legislative agendas of presidents from both parties when Dole was GOP leader. "Compromise has become a bad word," Dole said. "And I always thought in almost every case there is room for compromise.”
“Sometimes it is just justified, don't misunderstand me,” he said of the filibuster-first, explain-your-reservations-later approach of the modern Senate minority. “But most of the time you ought to be able to work out a compromise that is going to be voted on.”
Unlike the situation this summer — where the animus between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has become impossible to gloss over — Dole remembers his relationships with his equally adept Democratic counterparts the same way those who covered Congress back then recall them. Dole engaged in nonstop legislative combat with Robert C. Byrd, George Mitchell and Tom Daschle. Sometimes their discord made both sides pretty disagreeable, but it was all business and so never got personal.
“We disagreed, but we respected each other,” Dole recalled. “We never had an unkind word about each other.”
Members, aides, lobbyists and reporters watched him find the legislative sweet spot time and again — a splitting of the difference in which losers felt only somewhat more displeased than the winners.
They can easily conjure up how profoundly different this year’s moribund legislative to-do list might have fared in a Senate where Bob Dole’s worldview was the default setting.