Paul Begala: Why Today's Debt Showdown Needs Bob Dole

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Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (left) with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. Doug Mills / AP Photos

The government shutdown of 1995, dramatic though it was for the country and damaging though it was to the GOP, looks like the height of Republican reasonableness compared with today’s brinksmanship over default.

So much is different from 1995. The economy is weaker. Experts say the economic consequences of default may far exceed a mere government shutdown. The Republicans are much more, shall we say, ideologically inspired—with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in constant, furious competition to prove who’s more devoted to the Tea Party’s extremist position that the federal government must never, under any circumstances, increase federal revenue by so much as a penny, no matter how catastrophic the consequences. But perhaps the biggest difference is that Bob Dole isn’t in the room.

After then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “crybaby” rant about getting a bad seat on Air Force One (by the way, Mr. Gingrich, there are no bad seats on Air Force One) and the ensuing shutdown, it was Senate Majority Leader Dole who stopped the nonsense.

“Enough is enough,” he barked. “I don’t see any sense in what we’ve been doing.” A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Senator Dole.

Of course, President Obama has been playing this role—even growling the very words “Enough is enough” at the end of yet another excruciating session of negotiation with intransigent Republicans on July 13. But what about on the right? From my vantage point Boehner appears to want to be our Dole. But he may be a leader without enough followers.

No one could question Dole’s Republican credentials. He had been Republican National Committee chairman during part of Richard Nixon’s presidency, had served as Gerald Ford’s running mate, was a key Senate ally of Ronald Reagan, and was gearing up to run against President Clinton on behalf of the GOP. And no one could question Dole’s courage. Dole shed blood and lost the use of his right arm fighting the Nazis. What’s more, he was the unquestioned leader of Senate Republicans. Poor Boehner has enough of Cantor’s knives in his back to open a steakhouse.

In 1995 Speaker Gingrich had far more control over his conference. The freshman House Republicans were Gingrich’s babies; many listened to his Mao-like ideas on thought control as they drove around campaigning. But Gingrich made a major strategic error. He thought he could roll Clinton. Perhaps Gingrich saw Clinton’s moves to the center not as a sensible reaction to a disastrous midterm election but as capitulation to a right-wing agenda. Months before the shutdown, Clinton told me he could not believe the Republicans would be so dumb as to believe they could force him to sign massive cuts in Medicare. He said the smart play would be for them to cut a more modest deal that he would sign but that would be so distasteful to Clinton’s Democratic base that he would lose congressional support and risk a primary challenge.

It was apparent to Clinton that if it came to a shutdown he would win. An inveterate consensus builder, Clinton also knew when to draw the line. “Gary Cooper–style leader-ship,” he said, was easier than cutting difficult deals. But when Gingrich gave him a chance for a High Noon moment, Clinton stood tall. He pointed to the presidential desk, made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, and told Gingrich that if he wanted someone to sign those cuts into law, he’d have to get someone else to sit behind that desk.

Clinton won the showdown over the shutdown. Although his poll numbers initially dropped, he soon moved into a permanent advantage over the GOP.

Perhaps some in today’s Republican Party believe that the worse things get for the American economy, the better things get for Republican politicians. They need to heed the Sage of Russell, Kans.: enough is enough.

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