MAXWELL:  The record Dole doesn’t mention

7/7/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Most veteran election observers agree that former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP’s likely presidential nominee, doomed his 1988 run for the White House when he snarled into network television cameras and told George Bush to stop “lying about my record.”

Well, someone continues to lie about Dole’s record, and that someone is not Bush. This time, Bob Dole is “lying about” his own record.

On the stump, especially in front of conservative audiences, he is Mr. Republican, serving hefty portions of red meat. In his famous baritone, the lugubrious Dole holds forth about corralling “big gub-mint,” about slashing taxes and balancing the budget, about kicking freeloaders off welfare.

Dole’s other side _ the moderate Midwesterner with a penchant for conciliation _ emerges most clearly when he talks about the status of the abortion plank in the party platform. “In my view, you are either tolerant or intolerant,” the anti-abortion Dole said recently on NBC’s Today Show. “You can be pro-choice or pro-life and still be a very good Republican. That’s the bottom line.”

These traits _ tolerance and compromise _ have buttressed Dole’s long political career. But with echoes of the primaries still ringing in his ears, with the conservatism of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and California Gov. Pete Wilson still enticing many voters, with the prospect of facing the brutish Patrick Buchanan in San Diego and with the halo of Ralph Reed darkening the horizon, Dole continues to conceal his real record.

That record includes, for example, many years of actively supporting civil rights legislation. In 1964, Dole, a junior House member, voted for the Civil Rights Act that would change race relations in the United States.

As an influential senator 18 years later, he joined Democrats, against Republican President Ronald Reagan, in writing legislation that gave new life to civil rights guarantees. He was instrumental in helping to cool the Gipper’s zeal to snuff out federal affirmative action mandates. Then, against the wishes of President Bush, Dole crafted a compromise with Democrats that revived and saved the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

A long forgotten footnote in his record is that, standing up to his party’s conservative bloc, Dole worked with liberals to make Jan. 15 a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Who would believe that Dole, the man with the acid tongue and reluctant smile, labored alongside bleeding heart liberals such as former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin on causes for the poor and the disabled? With McGovern in the 1970s, he attacked poverty and hunger by co-sponsoring bills that increased allocations for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, the federal school lunch program and food stamps. He and Harkin helped push through the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act that gives federal protections to the physically disabled.

No one would call Dole a tree hugger, but _ perhaps because he is a Farm Belt native _ Dole supported some major environmental legislation. During Reagan’s first term, for instance, he backed the implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program that was a major provision of the omnibus farm bill.

Under the program, the government gives farmers money to not plant on ecologically fragile land. The bill is intended to decrease runoff of agricultural chemicals into sensitive waters and to conserve wildlife habitats. Most recently, Dole broke with party hard-liners to navigate the Clean Air Act through the Senate.

Why does Dole remain mum on these acts of decency? Why does he, in effect, “lie about” his own record? The truth is that Dole is a victim of the damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t trap.

If he runs on his moderate record, he will look too much like President Clinton, which means that voters would have no reason to evict the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in favor of an elderly look-alike.

Dole, therefore, must run to the right. But not too far to the right. To do so would mean identifying too closely with the increasingly unpopular GOP-led 104th Congress and losing the vote-rich middle where most presidential elections are won.

His mentor, Richard Nixon, related this electoral truism years ago: Run to the right in the primaries, but after winning, hustle back to the center.

In addition to his Today Show stance on abortion, Dole shows that he is heeding Nixon’s advice by remaining silent on affirmative action, a staple of his speeches during the primaries. Still another indication that he is playing to the center is his refusal to give Buchanan, who is still a presidential candidate, a prominent role in the Republican National Convention.

What, then, is Dole to do?

Win or lose, he should be Bob Dole, the Republican moderate from Kansas who won the respect of many liberal Democrats, including that of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon who said: “I support Bill Clinton, but I’m not going to get a one-way ticket to Canada if Bob Dole is elected president.”