The recent death of Walter Mondale — vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a presidential candidate himself in 1984 — has reminded me of some old history which may help explain Senator Roger Marshall. The key to that history is one of Kansas’s great political figures, Bob Dole.
In 1976, Mondale debated Dole as President Gerald Ford’s newly picked vice-presidential running mate. Like so many Kansas Republicans of that bygone era (and only a few today; Senator Jerry Moran being one of the few), Dole’s politics were of a practical bent, very much in line with the Eisenhower Republican tradition. While Dole was a product of what became the Big First congressional district and never abandoned the strong conservatism of western Kansas — his early embrace of anti-abortion politics proves that — he also knew how to work across the political aisle, compromising to pass laws defending the rights of minorities and the disabled.
But when Dole was thrust into the spotlight of American politics at the highest level, during that debate with Mondale 45 years ago, what came out was the defiant conservative isolationism of mid-century Russell, Kansas, where Dole was born. In an embarrassing exchange, Dole attacked his opponent by labeling every war of the 20th-century as the conspiratorial work of evil Democrats — including WWII’s struggle against fascism, where Dole himself had been gravely wounded. Dole’s strange rant may not have caused Ford’s loss to Carter, but it didn’t help.
In the decades which followed, Dole sought that spotlight again multiple times, climaxing in his own run for the presidency in 1996, against President Bill Clinton. Clinton was highly unpopular in Kansas, and thanks to national figures like Rush Limbaugh, anti-Clinton conspiracies and accusations were everywhere. Yet Dole touched almost none of them. He’d learned his lesson about the costs of tossing ideological red meat to the applause of core supporters while losing the opportunity for what he called, on the 1996 campaign trail, “honorable compromise.”
How does this history relate to Marshall? Over the past months we have seen a politician from the same deeply conservative Big First district enjoying the attention the U.S. Senate offers — and using that attention to dish out plenty of red meat. Taking every opportunity to grandstand on behalf of “Kansas values,” whether it be the imaginary threat which transgender girls supposedly pose to high school sports, or the imaginary threat that the Biden White House supposedly poses to eating hamburgers, Marshall has fashioned himself as determined cultural warrior, fighting, as his chief of staff put it, “urban/corporate America” on behalf of “everyone else.”
In reality, however, these words are just that: words. Far from acting on his grandstanding, Marshall’s first actual legislation was a compromise with one Democratic and one Republican senator to ease the burden of getting generic drugs to market. Which is exactly the sort of practical legislation that you’d expect a conservative Kansas doctor like Marshall to support.
Today’s Republican party is much different, and what conservatives expect from their politicians has changed post-Trump. But the lesson Dole took from his 1976 debate remains: ideological ranting, while always appreciated by the extremists within one’s party, gets in the way of the hard work of government, and there is a better way to represent voters than by giving vent to cultural paranoia. Perhaps Marshall will eventually come to the same conclusion. As a Republican elected to the Senate from Kansas, he’ll almost certainly be able to take his time thinking about it. Dole’s history, though, suggests that it’s better to grow out of grandstanding sooner rather than later.
Dr. Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.