More and more, responsible Republican voices are sounding off on the state of a historic American political party. The latest is that of Bob Dole, former Senate majority leader and 1996 presidential candidate.
The party has become so consumed with obstructionism over the past few years that it should be “closed for repairs,” according to Dole, one of its most respected and enduring elder statesmen. And he said it on Fox News. Clearly Dole was looking to make a point.
Dole was no shrinking violet as a senator. He fought with Democrats regularly. As Gerald Ford’s 1976 running mate, he was the ticket’s designated hatchet man. Twenty years later, he ran a vigorous, if not always well-focused, campaign against Bill Clinton. This is a man who understands the point of an election and of the need to draw sharp distinctions.
But he also understands the broader point, which is the fundamental need to govern. That is what his party has lost over the past 20 years, and especially since the election of President Obama in 2008. “It seems almost unreal that we can’t get together on a budget or legislation,” he said.
Dole didn’t spare Obama in his critique, faulting him for failing to reach out to Republicans in his first term. That would almost certainly have been useful, assuming Obama could have found Republicans who were willing to talk and compromise. As Dole complained, that has been a problem.
But the larger point is this: Dole said he doubted that he or even Ronald Reagan could have succeeded in today’s Republican Party. It’s not the first time someone has made that observation, but this came from a leading Republican. Imagine Democrats repudiating Franklin Roosevelt, and you’ve got some idea of the depth of Republican dysfunction. Said Dole: “Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to do this.’ ”
The problem is that too many Republicans are too afraid of tea party extremists to stand up and be counted. Among them is the current Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is up for re-election next year and desperately wants to avoid a primary fight against a tea party insurgent.
This is not a problem unique to today’s Republican Party. Under FDR, the Democrats tried to purge conservatives from the party. In the 1970s and ’80s, Democrats moved far enough to the left that the party couldn’t win presidential elections. It wasn’t until the more centrist Clinton won the party’s nomination that Democrats were able to reclaim the White House for only the second time in 24 years. Since then, they have won four of six elections.
Is the same thing happening to Republicans today? It looks that way. As the party gallops ever further to the right, it is alienating the centrists and independents it needs to win the presidency and, six months after being spanked in the 2012 election, it shows no real willingness to acknowledge political reality, let alone to govern responsibly.
Still, there are other hopeful signs. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, first won election to Congress with tea party help, but two months ago he joined the nonpartisan, centrist organization called “No Labels.” Tea partyers, those arbiters of ideological purity, were furious, but Reed is on the right track.
Corning’s former mayor is conservative to the bone, but he recognizes, as Dole does, that our form of government does not work without the emollient of compromise. The party needs more people like him – men and women who are still in office – saying what Dole did.
A two-party system is critical to the country’s interests. Without a credible alternative, the party in power has little else to hold it in check. Left to their own devices, both parties would soon give in to their excesses.
That’s a primary reason the country needs a functioning and responsible Republican Party that it can promote as needed. The country doesn’t have that today. Just ask Bob Dole.