One month ago, we lost a giant of American democracy, Bob Dole. A national hero and statesman who was seriously and permanently injured on a battlefield in Italy while protecting his country from foreign threats, Dole epitomized what it meant to be a public servant. To honor his life, we should learn from his legacy.
In the weeks following his death, Americans have read and heard much about Senator Dole’s extraordinary achievements. And all the praise has been well deserved. As a member of Congress for 36 years and as a private citizen, Bob Dole did everything he could to make democracy work and to enable all Americans to participate in the democratic process as fully as possible.
Understandably, considerable attention has been focused on Bob Dole’s leadership role in enacting the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, the landmark law that prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. But it would be a disservice to his legacy—especially in light of the present attacks on our democracy—not to note the breadth and depth of his commitment to providing equal opportunities for all Americans.
Senator Dole was an unabashed conservative Republican whose values demanded that he work across the aisle to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans—particularly the most vulnerable. As a young congressman from Kansas, he worked with Republicans and Democrats to support the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most important of all civil rights laws. In the 1970s, Senator Dole worked to expand civil rights protections for women through the enactment of Title IX and for persons with disabilities through the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Dole’s most lasting civil rights legacy was forged during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. During those 12 years, despite intense opposition from the far right, a bipartisan congressional coalition passed more than a dozen bills strengthening the nation’s civil rights laws. Working with Republican and Democratic colleagues, Senator Dole, through his gift for compromise and consensus, played a leadership role in many of those achievements.
Two of those civil rights victories in particular stand out. First, of course, was the passage of the ADA. Second, Senator Dole worked with Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Charles McC. Mathias to craft the timely and critical bipartisan compromise that ensured enactment of the 1982 Voting Rights Act Amendments. The Dole compromise provided a 25-year extension of the act and strengthened its key provisions. Twenty-five years later, Congress passed the Dole-inspired compromise by a 98–0 vote in the Senate and a 390–33 vote in the House of Representatives. President George W. Bush enthusiastically signed it into law. Regrettably, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, the conservative ideologues on the Supreme Court have since decimated the Voting Rights Act’s most important provisions. Those provisions must be restored as soon as possible.
In war and as in peace, Bob Dole defended our democracy. Yet today American democracy is under attack once again.
A year ago, the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overturn a legitimate election. Now democracy is under assault from an “unarmed insurrection.” In 19 states controlled by Republican state legislatures, lawmakers have enacted 34 different voter suppression laws that would disenfranchise millions of voters, particularly people of color, persons with disabilities, and older Americans.
Some of those states are going one step further by allowing state legislators to manipulate valid outcomes for partisan gain, an ominous leap from representative democracy to autocracy. Not since the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln defeated secession, has there been such a threat to our democracy. Sadly, the current crop of Republicans in Washington, by their silence or inaction, enable these unarmed insurrectionists.
Indeed, Senate Republicans continue to oppose the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in generations. These vital measures would guarantee the integrity of our electoral process by ensuring that every eligible citizen can vote and have that vote count.
The GOP’s present-day near-universal antipathy toward voting rights hasn’t always existed. The two of us worked together on Senate matters from 1978-1995 as moderate Republicans, a species that was admittedly endangered back then but is virtually extinct today. For nearly a half-century, and as recently as 2006, mainstream Republicans like Senator Dole worked across the aisle to defend and expand fundamental civil rights for all Americans. It was an era in which GOP senators embraced, not disgraced, democracy.
Ironically, the duty to uphold voting rights today falls not on moderate Republicans but on moderate Democrats—namely, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. This is because, except for Senator Lisa Murkowski, who supports the John Lewis bill, every Senate Republican not only opposes desperately needed voting rights protections but also refuses to allow their colleagues even to debate the measures.
Currently, the John Lewis bill and the Freedom to Vote Act appear to have the support of the entire Democratic Caucus. But for the bills to become law, Senators Manchin and Sinema need to do more than just side with the majority on voting rights. By coming out in support of limited filibuster reform that would allow for a 50-vote threshold to pass voting rights legislation, Manchin and Sinema can preserve the Senate’s bipartisan civil rights legacy—a defining achievement of American democracy, and one that Senator Dole fought tirelessly for throughout his life.
In doing so, they would be following the very example set by Dole, along with the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, who was willing, when necessary, to help reform Senate rules and precedents to advance the nation’s vital interests and preserve the integrity of the Senate. Indeed, between 1975 and 1986, Dole and many other Republicans joined Byrd on at least four occasions to change the legislative filibuster rule or establish new filibuster precedents.
As fierce partisans and passionate defenders of the filibuster, but also patriots and pragmatists, Senators Dole and Byrd knew how important it was to protect minority rights in the Senate. But they also knew that Senate rules are not a suicide pact and that sometimes new precedents must be established to enable the traditions of the Senate and the imperatives of democracy to coexist. The Senate must now adopt such a precedent, by fashioning a limited exception to the filibuster in order to defend the right to vote—the bulwark of democracy.
Finally, the two of us have been strong supporters of bipartisanship throughout our entire political careers. Indeed, we believe that pursuing bipartisanship is the best means to improving democracy. But we also know that at critical moments in our nation’s history, each party has on occasion adamantly refused to compromise and voted against essential reforms to better protect all our nation’s citizens.
For example, in the immediate wake of the Civil War, not one single Senate Democrat voted for the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the essential constitutional basis for the long overdue and historic legislation of the 1960’s protecting the right to vote. In more recent times, not one single Senate Republican voted for the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, perhaps the most consequential social justice reform of the past quarter century. In each of these challenging circumstances, the Senate acted in the best interests of American democracy.
And today, despite a lengthy and determined effort by Senator Manchin to convince Republicans to compromise on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis voting rights legislation, no Senate Republican will support the former and only one the latter. Once again, our nation faces another critical moment that will decide our future. And this time it is the preservation of democracy itself that hangs in the balance.
Nearly six decades ago while delivering his “I have a dream speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, and a year or two before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Martin Luther King eloquently declared that “we are now confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late.”
The Senate cannot afford to delay. The Senate must act now to protect the right to vote – and to save our democracy.
David F. Durenberger, now an independent, was the Republican senator from Minnesota from 1978 to 1995. Ralph G. Neas, now a Democrat, was formerly the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and currently serves as the senior counsel on voting rights at the Century Foundation.