Bob Dole sends his regrets. That seems to be the gist of an interview he gave to The New York Times recently, in which the former Republican Senate leader blamed political gamesmanship for the defeat of health reform in the 1990s. “President Clinton was covering his political bases,” Dole explained, “and so was I.” In terms of political candor, we can’t expect much more than that. Basically Dole said that health reform failed 15 years ago because there were personal and political fish to fry. Clinton’s agenda was to pass health reform and ride it to re-election; Dole’s was to kill reform in order to weaken Clinton and give Dole a shot at replacing him in the White House. The rest of us were mere bystanders, ricochet victims of a drive-by shooting.
Dole, 86, is now lobbying for Congress to pass the kind of bipartisan health-reform legislation he shunned in 1994. But it’s not clear that in 2009 there is any bipartisanship left for a retired senator to leverage. The last, tattered remnants of the vital center began vacating the premises around the time that Dole resigned, in 1996. The polarization that gripped Washington as Dole’s career was ending has filled the vacuum in the capital and expanded outward. In state legislatures from Albany to Sacramento, partisan gridlock, dysfunction, and flight from responsibility are commonplace. If the nation’s political works were faltering by the end of Dole’s long, storied career, today the two-party engine appears to have seized. No doubt the political bases are still well covered. But personal ambition, ideological rigidity, and partisan opportunism are everywhere exposed.
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