Back in the days when a new Ford pickup could be bought for $6,000 and a scotch and soda couldn’t be bought anywhere outside a “private club” – and long before a global pandemic shook up daily life – Republicans Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate, serving alongside each other during an 18-year period of relative civility and pragmatism that seems light years away from the divisions of today.
But even then there were difficult disagreements. Kassebaum notes that she and Dole sometimes differed on issues, including when Dole tried to carry out then- President Ronald Reagan’s wishes regarding South Africa, and Kassebaum worked with House Republicans and Democrats to place sanctions on the apartheid nation. But she and Dole often agreed, including on pay raises for Congress, an issue fraught with posturing.
“There were times I felt I was a thorn in his side, but we had an understanding and were always able to talk about it,” says Kassebaum, who represented Kansas from 1978 to 1997 and now lives on her family ranch near Burdick, about 60 miles south of Manhattan. “Today, there’s not the respect for those who disagree with you.”
For eight decades, Republicans have represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate. At the same time, a belief has taken root that the best of them were able to walk a delicate line between fierce party loyalty and skilled pragmatism while working across partisan and factional divisions for the greater good. Some might call it the Kansas pragmatic tradition, although others call it more of a myth.
On Aug. 4, Kansas Republicans chose a new standard-bearer seeking to extend the party’s dominance another six years.
First District U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall (whom Dole endorsed) bested ten other candidates vying for the nomination, including former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, entrepreneur Bob Hamilton and David Lindstrom, a former Kansas City Chiefs football player. (Disclosure: Lindstrom is chairman of the board of directors for the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal. He had no involvement with the development of this story.)
Marshall faces State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Democrat who left the GOP in 2018.
The state’s next senator will experience a Senate chamber that functions very differently from the era Kassebaum and Dole experienced, one where pragmatism now could be largely a relic.
Indeed, when five Republican candidates gathered in May for a debate in Manhattan, all of them (the four previously mentioned and then-candidate Susan Wagle) emphasized their loyalty to President Donald Trump and his policies. That is perhaps not surprising since Trump remains popular with nine out of 10 Republicans nationally. But his overall approval rating with registered voters has hovered below 45% since March 2017, according to YouGov polling.
Kassebaum says that prior to and during her Senate service, regular order prevailed, meaning lots of work was done in committees involving senators of both parties, so the majority leader’s control was decreased. These days, one lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has much more control over the process.
Along the way, it’s become a lot tougher for senators to display the type of pragmatism that Dole and Kassebaum did on occasion. And it can be all too easy to romanticize their efforts in hindsight.
William B. Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, which houses Dole’s congressional papers, argues that Kansas senators don’t generally have a tradition of being pragmatic.
In fact, quite the opposite. Even in Dole’s era, bipartisanship was more the exception than the rule. Lacy thinks most senators such as Dole who act in bipartisan ways can also be very partisan.
Lacy, who served as Reagan’s political director, knows Dole’s career well. He’s played a major role in seven presidential campaigns, including Dole’s 1988 and 1996 efforts.
But he acknowledges that partisanship tended to look very different then from what it does today. Lacy says that Dole and many others who were part of “that great Senate” of 30 to 50 years ago were members of the Greatest Generation, having lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II and embodied “that ethic of Americans could work together and accomplish anything.”
“(Dole) was very good at finding common ground with people, but if he had strong philosophical grounds on an issue, he’d stick to his guns,” Lacy says. “I think that compromise, in the sense of Dole and others, wasn’t compromising your principles but finding common ground. Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘If you can get 80% of what you want, you’d be crazy not to take it.’ The Greatest Generation believed you could have a win-win. It’s what made the Senate back then a very productive place.”
Yet even though times have changed, Dole’s style should be relevant in today’s partisanship, Lacy says, because all senators could learn from his example.
“At some point, we’re going to face a crisis that will require, if not a suspension of partisanship, at least moving above it,” he said, in an interview weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“One would hope at that point senators will fall back on the examples of Dole, (Sen. John) McCain, Kassebaum, and Democrats like them” who could set aside their personal views in favor of what they thought were the country’s best interests.
And indeed, there are signs that some lawmakers, if not the president, have been working to dial back partisanship during the pandemic. While there are divisions within the country over social distancing efforts and reopening the economy, Kansas’ two U.S. senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, have joined the rest of the body in largely steering clear of partisanship, state political observers say.
“I think that most of them have not been especially partisan in this overwhelming situation, and I think Jerry and Pat have followed that roadmap,” says Burdett Loomis, political science professor emeritus at KU and a congressional scholar for 45 years who has edited two books on the Senate.
There’s a good reason for that, Loomis says: “Senators have to go home and talk to people who’ve gotten sick,” he says, and some have even had relatives die.
But restraint isn’t exactly cooperation either.
If a pandemic had hit while Dole was a senator, Loomis says, “you would’ve seen him on the phone with Bill Clinton every day, maybe many times a day. He also knew enough to stay out of the line of fire if there was a problem.”
Lacy says partisanship is not really the fault of individual legislators, though. He says it’s difficult for elected officials at any level to act pragmatically unless their leaders want them to. Though the current crisis is different in many ways from those of the Great Recession, and the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq, “at least there was enough unity for Democrats to support the Iraqi war.”
The CARES Act to provide economic relief during the pandemic was passed despite partisanship, “but nobody is acting like they want to be bipartisan,” including the president, the Senate and the House. Any greater pragmatism has grown from “the seriousness of the crisis we face,” Lacy says.
Kassebaum and Dole probably would have reached across the aisle, “whether or not that would be feasible in this environment.” But the political costs of doing so are likely to be greater than they were back in their days.
“Could Dole and Kassebaum win primaries so they could become senators today?” Lacy asks.
Republicans and Democrats certainly had their share of interparty and intraparty feuds in Dole’s days, but Audrey Coleman, the Dole Institute’s associate director and director of museum and archives, says there was more space for warring political parties to identify and work on problems they both had a stake in solving.
“They were able to put aside whatever venom that might have taken place on the campaign trail and (work) on this legislation,” Coleman says.
A SHIFTING CONTEXT
It didn’t hurt that partisan lines were much fuzzier during Dole’s 35 years in the House and Senate. At the beginning of his congressional tenure, there were liberal Republicans, who teamed up with northern Democrats on issues such as civil rights, and conservative Democrats from the south who opposed integration. Over time, the parties have realigned to become more homogeneous and ideological, morphing into more clearly liberal and conservative parties that disagree with each other more than they disagree within their own ranks.
But Dole’s ability to take advantage of opportunities to be pragmatic stands out, Loomis says.
Loomis authored a chapter about Dole in the 2019 book “Leadership in the U.S. Senate,” edited by Colton Campbell. In it, Loomis quotes the late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi about Dole’s skill at bringing people together.
“Dole involves more people in decisions,” Cochran said. “He gets them on the inside working to put a package together. Then they have a stake in the process. He keeps widening the circle.” Among Dole’s compromises were his work with Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota to improve access to food stamps and his amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1982 that allowed the legislation to pass with overwhelming support from both parties and the White House.
“He’ll be remembered as a presidential candidate, to be sure, but as a congressional scholar (there’s) no doubt he’ll be remembered as a Senate leader,” Loomis says. “He was a Senate leader in an era. His most productive period was between 1981 and 1986 … and he was working in a Senate and a Congress where there had been a long tradition of cross-partisan deals being made … to get major things done.”
If Dole were the Senate majority leader now, though, his approach might resemble that of McConnell’s because of the Senate’s partisan tenor, Loomis says. Dole was always a partisan, but he sought a partisan-pragmatism balance. Kansas senators’ pragmatic tradition hasn’t changed as much as the Senate’s context has, with partisan lines “drawn so much more powerfully.”
“Majority leaders, as opposed to the House speaker, have relatively modest powers, so they have to lead by herding the cats all together,” he says. “On the best day, it’s not easy … (but) it’s not impossible.”
So it might be harder for the Doles of today’s Senate to make deals. Or the compromise-minded might just want to skip the Senate entirely, leaving a void and diminishing the stature of legislating.
Increasing partisanship “makes a Senate career, to me, less attractive,” Loomis says.
“Why do you want to be in this if your ability to get things done is limited? I think it’s in the interest of the country to have a strong legislative branch.”
Dole left the Senate in 1996 to focus on his run for president and it’s around then that significant changes began to take shape.
The midterm elections of 1994 marked a change in emphasis from pragmatism to partisanship, especially in the House under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia but also in the Senate, says Ed Flentje, professor emeritus at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University. It was a “critical break in Kansas politics, at the Statehouse level, too.”
“Since that election, in my view, it’s really been a different political dynamic in the Senate,” Flentje says.
Flentje was a legislative aide to Sen. James B. Pearson, Kassebaum’s predecessor, starting in 1968. He characterized Pearson as “fairly effective” at working across the aisle in ways that he doesn’t see Kansas’ senators doing today.
“I call it working across the party divide,” Flentje says. “In most ways, that was imperative. … My question would be: Where is this evidence of pragmatism in the past 25 years? I don’t see it.”
Determining what’s bipartisan and when it’s good or bad seems highly subjective, but there have been efforts to quantify it.
The Lugar Center, located in Washington and named after former Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy rank senators based on their bipartisanship as measured by how often they sponsor or co-sponsor bills with members of the other party. Among Kansas’ members of the upper chamber, Sen. Jerry Moran ranks 61st, former Sen. Sam Brownback ranks 105th and outgoing Sen. Pat Roberts ranks 142nd out of the 250 senators between 1993 and 2018 that have been assigned lifetime ratings in the index.
In Flentje’s view, Gingrich’s rise to power marked a shift in the party’s focus to issues such as gun rights, opposition to abortion and reducing taxes.
“Now we’re in the Trump era, and partisanship is the dominant force in the political dynamics of the U.S. Senate,” Flentje says. “So pragmatism rarely shows up, and a tradition of pragmatism is nowhere in sight.”
Technological changes also push senators apart, Kassebaum says. She says the loss of respect among senators is fueled mainly by instantaneous information on social media and elsewhere online, and by the enormous amounts of money required to compete in political campaigns. These factors “are what have changed politics the most.”
The speed at which news and other information travel leaves “no time for reflection at all, so you’ve immediately built up a wall,” Kassebaum says. This decreases flexibility in discussions and negotiations to understand issues and increases kneejerk conclusions.
Despite changes in the landscape, Lacy says that bipartisanship still occurs but it’s not as obvious.
Yet he shares Kassebaum’s view that social media add to the conflict by making it easy to anonymously attack people and “destroy their reputations and credibility” and promoting a “rush to instantaneous judgment.”
And it’s a tendency that affects far more than politicians.
“As Americans, we seem to be far less willing to think about what’s going on and (instead) immediately go through our (party-based) decision matrix, and it’ll tell me how to think about anything,” Lacy says. “At some point, that’s going to have to change. The pendulum swings.”
WHAT MAKES A GREAT SENATOR?
With pragmatism apparently on the wane, what exactly is it that makes a great senator in this day and age? It’s not an academic question for Kansans, who will weigh in on the matter twice over the next few months.
The Nov. 3 general election will pit the contrasting political positions of a Democratic and Republican candidate against each other.
But in the Aug. 4 primary, the candidates vying for the nomination, especially on the Republican side, have very similar positions on most major issues. They are separated mostly by small degrees of differences, questions about electability or who will be the most potent standard-bearer for the party’s agenda. But will there be any discussion about what kind of leadership it takes for a senator to excel as one lawmaker among 100? How does any politician get anything done in this day and age?
It’s a question that many have explored, from the political journalist David Broder to then Sen. John F. Kennedy, although there’s hardly much consensus and more discussion of intangibles than tangibles.
Among the characteristics that often emerge: strong principles, unshakeable work ethic, skill at problem solving, eloquence, legal acumen, a knack for building relationships with constituents and colleagues, and a taste for solving problems even if it takes compromise.
Much of the real work is unglamorous and doesn’t fit well within a 10-second sound bite or a 60-second campaign ad. Great senators tend to have great staffs, build on their personal strengths and know arcane Senate rules, formal and informal, Loomis says.
“Have an interest in and care about the people you’re elected to serve,” Kassebaum says. “That’s extremely important. … I’m disappointed today that maybe we don’t have in-depth opportunities to have that debate and analysis. I think we’re losing some of the younger voters who decide: ‘They’re not talking about what we want to hear, anyway, so blah, blah, blah.’”
Lacy says the qualities that make for a great senator include the ability to listen to constituents and colleagues and a clear set of principles and political philosophy.
The incongruity is that truly serving in the context of the U.S. Senate might mean not only going against your own party at times but also determining when to take a course of action that flouts the popular will.
Virgil Dean, a former editor of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains and a former historian with the Kansas Historical Society, says that sometimes senators and representatives “get so concerned about what the public thinks that they can’t go beyond that and take on a statesman’s role.
“I find it distressing that there’s an unwillingness to be a political leader, that you don’t try to convince people that this is the way things should be. And modify your position if you think it’s reasonable.” When Kassebaum was in the Senate, her style was “probably not the kind that would be pounding the table, shaking my finger,” she says. But the Senate is a place where succeeding necessitates some frequently shifting combination of internal strength, conviction, flexibility and humility.
“You have to be yourself and be honest with what you believe,” she says. “And think about the big issues … (and) cross the aisle without feeling like a traitor,” whether it’s the Kansas Legislature or the U.S. Senate.
But going against the grain in today’s U.S. Senate is a sure-fire formula to be the target of backlash from your partisan allies. That’s something West Virginia’s Joe Manchin learned when he became the one Senate Democrat to vote in favor of confirming U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was castigated for betraying the GOP for voting to convict Trump of an article of impeachment alleging abuse of power.
So when it comes to electing a U.S. senator, are Kansans looking for more partisanship or more pragmatism? November may give us a clue.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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