When Bob Dole bid for the presidency in 1996, the very conservative Republican from Kansas ran a campaign that proudly announced he “supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965” and “played an instrumental role in extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982.”
Dole won the party’s nomination with relative ease that year, chose the party’s leading advocate for outreach to Black voters—former New York representative and housing secretary Jack Kemp—as his running mate, and mounted a campaign in which he regularly touted his support for voting rights and the fact that, as Senate floor manager, he shepherded to enactment the bill to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
That didn’t make Dole, who died Sunday at age 98, a Lincoln Republican, or even an Eisenhower Republican. He was still wrong on a long list of issues, from labor rights to environmental policy to affirmative action, and he lost that 1996 race for some very good reasons.
But Dole, whom I interviewed a number of times over the years, was an old-school conservative who felt that the Republican Party had a duty to support voting rights. He was proud to have fought for democracy, not just as a member of the House and the Senate but also as a courageous, decorated soldier in the battle against European fascism. Severely wounded in World War II, he became a lifetime advocate of disability rights and worked closely with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, to enact the landmark protections contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Such was Dole’s record that Dr. Deborah Turner, president of the League of Women Voters, which worked with the former senator on the Voting Rights Act reauthorization of 1982 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, declared, “Senator Dole will be remembered as an exemplar of statesmanship and public service. May we honor his memory by upholding the voting rights and disability rights that he championed.”
Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “Bob Dole’s lifetime of public service exemplified the notion that civil and human rights are not a partisan issue. Some of his strongest friendships were across the political aisle. Our current elected officials would do well to honor his memory and work for the common good.”
Unfortunately, today’s Republicans are disinclined to honor Dole’s memory by advocating for voting rights. In fact, they are prepared to punish members of their party who choose to defend democracy.
Dole’s passing comes at a moment when conservative justices on the US Supreme Court have done severe damage to Voting Rights Act protections, when Republicans in the Senate are blocking action on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and when Republicans in the states are actively supporting extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression initiatives, and schemes to challenge election results that fail to favor them.
With the recent news that Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney has been excommunicated by her own state’s Republican Party’s central committee for daring to suggest that Donald Trump and his associates should be held to account for their support of the January 6 insurrection and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, does anyone doubt that Dole would be similarly abused by Republicans who countenance no deviance from their current assault on democracy?
Indeed, Dole was a conservative and a party loyalist who, like Liz Cheney, invariably endorsed GOP nominees, including Donald Trump in 2016. Yet he lost patience with Trump’s Big Lie politics, acknowledging after the 2020 election that Trump lost, and adding, “He had Rudy Giuliani running all over the country, claiming fraud. He never had one bit of fraud in all those lawsuits he filed and statements he made.”
Dole came from the era when Republicans still embraced basic premises of democracy, and believed they could win battles of ideas. He also believed in working with Democrats, including liberals such as Kennedy, to achieve progress for civil rights and voting rights.
In 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president and Republicans were in control of the Senate (with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond chairing the Judiciary Committee), Dole took it upon himself to develop a plan for extending the Voting Rights Act. As The New York Times reported, Dole “drafted a compromise that civil rights lobbyists and liberal Democratic Senators said they could support. The lobbyists and the Democrats, including Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, commended Mr. Dole and said negotiations were continuing.”
The negotiations forged a strong bill that extended essential protections for 25 years. Dole then lobbied his Republican colleagues, especially those on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to back the bill. His support was critical to breaking a deadlock, defeating amendments that sought to weaken the measure, and winning for it the Senate’s approval—with an overwhelming 85-8 vote. In a Republican-dominated moment, Kennedy said, “This victory is a heartening sign that Congress will not endlessly turn its back on the needy in our society and the minority who are not white.”
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation would later recall:
On June 29, 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Though the Act had been renewed twice before by Presidents Nixon and Ford, the 1982 reauthorization made Section 2 of the VRA permanent. This section of the bill prohibited the violation of voting rights by any practices that discriminated based on race, regardless of if the practices had been adopted with the intent to discriminate or not. This amendment of Section 2 had a significant impact on minority representation in Congress.
Why did Dole work so hard on this issue? At a point in the spring of 1982, when the Times reported that “leading Republicans…expressed concern about the alienation of blacks from the party,” an aide to Dole told the paper “the Senator’s objective in seeking a compromise was ‘to save the Republican Party.’”
Dole did this as a highly influential Republican and a veteran member of the US House and the Senate who had been the party’s 1976 vice presidential nominee, who had bid once for the presidency, and who would do so two more times. He was an ambitious political figure, but there were principles that he refused to sacrifice on the altar of that ambition.
The cruel truth of our times is that the record that now earns Bob Dole praise for his “distinguished service” would make him an unwelcome figure as an active participant in the political battles of a Republican Party that has, under pressure from Donald Trump and his minions, made an opposition to voting rights protections—and a belligerent attitude toward even the most conservative defenders of American democracy—central to GOP politics.