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Idea of the Senate | The Courage to Act on Principle

Bob Dole, 2000

Throughout his long political career, Kansas senator Bob Dole won many victories in his elections to the House and Senate, and as Senate majority leader. He also suffered many defeats, including campaigns for vice president and president of the United States. When invited back to the Senate in 2000 to deliver a “Leader’s Lecture,” Senator Dole reflected on winning and losing and found value in both experiences, beginning with his most difficult day as majority leader.

Robert J. Dole was born in Russell, Kansas, in 1923. During the Second World War he served as combat infantry officer in Italy, where he was severely wounded. He later received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor. After a long and difficult recuperation he earned a law degree and practiced law in his home town. Dole served as county attorney before running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. He spent eight years in the House and then was elected to the Senate in 1968. Sharp in debate, Dole also served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1971 to 1972. In 1976 President Gerald R. Ford selected him as his vice-presidential running mate, but the ticket went down to defeat. Senator Dole made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Ronald Reagan’s victory that year swept into office a large class of freshmen Republicans, enabling Senate Republicans to win the majority for the first time in 26 years. Senator Dole became chair of the Senate Finance Committee, where he promoted Reagan’s tax cuts and helped forge a bipartisan plan to shore up the Social Security system. In 1985 Senate Republicans elected Bob Dole as their floor leader. He led the party in the majority from 1985 to 1986, and in the minority from 1987 to 1994. In the congressional elections of 1994, Republicans reclaimed majorities in both the Senate and the House, and Senator Dole once again served as majority leader. Dole shared memories of his most challenging day on the job in his “Leader’s Lecture” in 2000.

The Courage to Act on Principle

Perhaps the most difficult day—there were a lot of difficult days—of my years in the Senate was . . . on March 2, 1995. The Republicans were back in the Senate majority, after an eight-year absence, and in the House majority after a forty-year absence. One of the top items on our agenda was sending the balanced budget amendment to the states. President Clinton was doing all he could to defeat it. Despite that, there were fourteen Senate Democrats who would vote for the amendment. That meant we would need all fifty-three Republicans to achieve the two-thirds vote necessary.

We were on the brink of success when Senator Hatfield told me, in no uncertain terms, he was going to vote no. I pleaded with Mark to change his mind. . . . But Mark was a man of his word. He said: I can't vote for it, but I will resign. Then you'll have just ninety-nine senators, and you only need sixty-six votes for two-thirds. I rejected Mark's proposal. While I strongly disagreed with his position, I also respected any senator's right to vote their conscience.

If I could change the past, would I have done things differently had I known that the White House and House of Representatives would cut a deal on the budget? Would I have accepted Senator Hatfield's offer to resign?

I believe the answer is no. For, in looking back at my career . . . it is clear to me that defeat is as much a part of life as victory. . . . Gradually it dawns on us that success and failure are not polar opposites. They are parts of the same picture—the picture of a full life, where you have your ups and you have your downs.

After all, as everybody in this room knows, none of us can ever lose unless we first find the courage to try. Losing means that at least you were in the race. It means that when the whistle sounded, life did not find you watching from the sidelines.

Not far from this historic chamber [the Old Senate Chamber] stands a memorial to a senator whose greatness is universally acknowledged, notwithstanding the controversies which once swirled around his name. A “senator's senator,” Robert Taft, was the Senate majority leader from January 1953 until his death in July of that year.

In the words of one admirer, Taft "lost no sleep nights worrying that he would be found out. He lost much sleep over the fate of his country. He knew to the end that his was a moral attitude toward life and that he'd given to his country his last full measure of devotion." In short, Taft's conscience was clear. Nearly half a century after his death, the Taft Carillon on the brow of Capitol Hill reminds us not of his greatness but of his virtue.

Virtue resists easy definition. It can't be measured by a pollster or massaged by a spin doctor. Pragmatism can be a virtue. But under other circumstances, so can the willingness to risk defeat for one's deepest convictions.1

Due to the massive budget deficits the federal government had accumulated during the 1980s, the new majority, joined by a large number of Democrats in both houses, set as a top objective a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The House passed the amendment with the necessary two-thirds majority, and when it came to the Senate it appeared that enough Democrats would support it to make the two-thirds hurdle, so long as every Republican senator voted for it. But Oregon’s Senator Mark Hatfield, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, had strong reservations about the amendment, which he found too complex and restrictive. Senator Hatfield came to the conclusion that he could not in good conscience vote for the amendment. Since his vote was critical, he offered to resign from the Senate. With only 99 senators, one less vote would be necessary to achieve the two-thirds margin.

It was a measure of Mark Hatfield’s courage to act on principle that he would make such an extraordinary offer. It was a measure of Bob Dole’s character that he declined to accept that offer, even though he strongly disagreed with his colleague’s position. In the end, Congress and the Clinton administration reached accommodation over taxing and spending that balanced the budget without the constitutional amendment.

Senator Dole also reflected on one of his senatorial heroes, the former majority leader Robert Taft, an Ohio Republican. Taft, whose monument stands at the base of Capitol Hill, had also enjoyed many victories and suffered many defeats. On three occasions he had tried for and lost his party’s presidential nomination. For Senator Dole, Robert Taft stood as a monument not to greatness but to virtue. In a legislative body such as the United States Senate, virtue can be defined both as the wisdom to compromise and the courage to act on principle.

Further Reading:

Address by Senator Bob Dole, March 28, 2000, history/common/generic/Leaders_Lecture_Series_Dole.htm

Dole, Robert J. One Solider’s Story: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Dole, Bob and Elizabeth, with Richard Norton Smith and Kerry Tymchuk. Unlimited Partners: Our American Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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1. Trent Lott, Leading the United States Senate: The Leader’s Lecture Series (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 107-108.