Washington's Top Republican

November 22, 1992|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE | JOSEPH R. L. STERNE,Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Baltimore Sun.

In the eternal struggle for power on Capitol Hill, Senate Republican leader Robert Dole emerges as the clear winner of the Nov. 3 election.

His position has been enhanced, ironic as it may seem, because his party lost the White House and remains very much in the minority in both houses of Congress. He now stands poised to be the most visible and influential Republican on the Hill since the days of Everett McKinley Dirksen.

The election results liberated Bob Dole. No longer does he have to play loyal lieutenant to George Bush, the fellow who beat him in a bitter New Hampshire primary in early 1988. ("Tell him to stop lying about my record," Mr. Dole snarled as he fell victim to a typical Bush negative ad campaign.)

No longer does he have to champion the Reagan-Bush supply-side economics theories that have quadrupled the national debt. (The Kansas senator tells this joke: "A bus filled with supply siders goes over the cliff killing all aboard. That's the good news. The bad news is that there were three unoccupied seats.")

Not all of Bob Dole's acerbic cuts are directed at fellow Republicans. Not by any means.

Hardly had the Democratic president-elect time to savor the voting returns on election night when Senator Dole was on the air to declare that "57 percent of the American who voted in the presidential election voted against Bill Clinton, and I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate."

He claimed the allegiance of Ross Perot voters, saying he concurred in their deficit-cutting agenda. A few days later, he said "there are things we can do, if we feel it necessary in the national interest, to slow things down. And we'll be prepared to do that, based upon what develops." Provided his caucus holds together, he can filibuster or put legislation "on hold" until the Clinton administration is ready to deal.

Although the New York Times quickly huffed editorially at "Bob Dole's politics of rancor," such an interpretation misses the personal elation the senator must feel as the suddenly anointed chief spokesman for his party.

"I am sort of looking forward to a little different opportunity," he commented by way of understatement. Nor does it take into account a lifetime record in which Mr. Dole's instincts as a partisan battler often are subordinated to the timeless congressional practice of quiet accommodation.

Two men who should know -- former Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and former Senate Republican leader Howard W. Baker -- agree that Senator Dole's clout is enhanced as leader of a minority party on the outs.

"Not every Democrat in the Senate was happy when [Jimmy] Carter won in 1976," Mr. Baker told The Sun. "They were happier when the president was a member of the other party." That, he said, applies as well to Mr. Dole and today's Senate Republicans.

Mr. Mansfield predicts that Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell will find his task more difficult and weighed down with more responsibility now that he has to steer an administration's agenda through to passage rather than oppose it.

Mr. Mansfield should know. He was Presidents John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's majority leader during the turbulent Sixties. He said Mr. Dole's role is now very important as the "No. 1 Republican" and forecast that "he will act with more statesmanship than people expect."

This latter comment reflects Mr. Mansfield's relationship 30 years ago with Mr. Dirksen. At that time the colorful "wizard of ooze" enlivened Capitol Hill with his campaign to make the marigold the national flower, with his "Ev and Charlie" [Halleck] and "Ev and Jerry" [Ford] Shows/cum press conferences in the Senate press gallery, and his with memorable phrase that "the oil can is mightier than the sword."

Mr. Dirksen was indeed "Mr. Republican" in those days. He was the only man who could deliver the votes to pass landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. And Mr. Mansfield himself poured enough oil on the Illinois senator to have him fulfill that role.

In the interval between Mr. Dirksen's death in 1969 and Mr. Dole's accession to the GOP leadership in 1985, two other Republicans served in that position -- Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Tennessee's Mr. Baker.

Both men were were amiable, quiet and accommodating, seeking neither the showboat role of a Dirksen nor the point-man combative role of a Dole. Mr. Scott, a moderate and an intellectual, had to serve Republican presidents: Richard Nixon, who lacked the former characteristic, and Gerald Ford, who lacked the latter. Senator Baker had to deal with the Democratic Carter administration and, at severe cost to his presidential ambitions, dismayed the GOP right wing by pushing hard for the Panama Canal Treaty. Later, he suffered the usual eclipse when a member of his own party, Ronald Reagan, went to the White House.

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