The Corner

Bob Dole

I’m no fan of his: I’m still wondering why he hasn’t moved back to Russell, Kansas, the way he promised he would during his 1996 run if he lost. But Matthew Yglesias is criticizing him for what I regard as the best moments in his career: when he helped to sink the Clintons’ health plan.

Yglesias writes about “Dole’s legislative program of mindless [obstructionism]” during this period: “Famously, Clinton couldn’t get a single Republican vote for his 1993 deficit-reduction bill (the one that was supposed to destroy the economy), though many GOP members had voted for a similar bill during the first Bush administration. Worse, in the long term, this led Dole to accept the logic of a memo penned by Bill Kristol (a man with no demonstrated knowledge of, or interest in, health-care issues) urging Republicans to oppose Clinton’s health-reform proposals “[sight] unseen,” not because the proposal was bad (it was, remember, unseen) but because it might be good, thereby restoring middle-class faith in the efficacy of government action. Dole successfully whipped his caucus into doing just that, using the filibuster power to ensure that no plan would pass rather than [using] leverage to forge a more moderate bill. That this entailed having several senators back away from ideas they’d long been on record as favoring, and even forced Dole to repudiate a compromise measure he’d co-sponsored, was of little concern. The important thing was to deny Clinton any legislative compromises.

“Thus Dole found himself present at the creation, almost simultaneously, of all the most repugnant aspects of the modern Republican Party: the pursuit of partisan gain at the expense of the public interest and any recognizably coherent ideology, the dogmatic insistence that no tax ever be raised under any circumstances, and the pretense that the Democratic Party is less an opposition party than some sort of illegitimate force to be crushed by any means necessary. In combination, the resulting legacy is one of fundamental unseriousness about public life. . .”

Kristol was right to urge opposition to Clinton’s original plan, and possible later compromises based on it, “sight unseen.” Kristol’s theory was that Clinton wanted to move the country toward some form of national health insurance, and that this would be bad for the country, that one of the ways it would be bad for the country was that it would encourage an unhealthy degree of public dependence on the government and the party of government, and that this was one of the reasons Clinton wanted it. (Stanley Greenberg had said something to this effect beforehand.) So of course you didn’t need to wait to see the details to oppose the plan; you could oppose the whole concept. There’s nothing ideologically incoherent about that, and it is not on its face a repudiation of the public interest. The stance undermined the public interest only if one or more of these premises were wrong (which I don’t believe they were). Getting senators to back away from bad ideas they had supported, meanwhile, is something Senate majority leaders should do more often.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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