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Larry O'Donnell, Former Chief-of-Staff for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Interviewed July 14, 1996


FL: Let's talk about the ways in which you see and can contrast Dole and Clinton...

O'DONNELL:

We've come to an election now where each party has as it's nominee, the most politically expedient nominee they have ever had. There is no Democrat during my lifetime, who has been more politically expedient than Bill Clinton. There is no Republican during my lifetime who has been more politically expedient than Dole. This means that they actually end up in policy terms as you come down to the finish line, on this election, in very very close proximity to each other on all of the real governing issues in front of this country.

Things of the sort of how many hundreds of billions of dollars do you want to spend on Medicare, what about Social Security, basically what we're paying for as a government. The differences between these two is very slight. All you're left with, really, is the difference between the two of them on abortion, which is serious and identifiable, and a couple of distinctions as to exactly what kind of assault weapons people should be allowed to buy, since both of them are in favor of the public being able to buy some kinds of assault weapons. I mean, Clinton is not against all of them. That's really it. They both want to balance the budget in seven years. That position alone is single most dramatic governing proposal that has been made in this half of the century. Balancing the federal budget within seven years.

For them to have no disagreement on that, brings this election into the tightest fit you could possibly ask for. They don't have a really large meaningful governing distinction between the two of them. Because one coming from the left, the other coming from the right, they have both opted for maximum political expediency, poll driven, which puts them in almost identical positions on all of the big issues.

I know generally people think that politicians are all politically expedient in the extreme. But with virtually every other politician that I can think of in the Republican Party or in the Democratic Party, if you give me his or her name, I can tell you the two or three things that they absolutely will not compromise on.

If you give me the name Bob Dole, I can tell you that the only place he won't significantly compromise is abortion. And if you give me the name Bill Clinton, I'll tell you that the only significant place he won't compromise is abortion. They will, on every other thing, abandon any position they have to abandon in order to maximize their vote count. It's a level of political expediency that we have never really seen before.

Bill Clinton, in his first two years as President, wanted to spend dramatically more money on welfare for example. He thought spending more money on welfare recipients was the way to help them get off of welfare. Bill Clinton now, following the Republican Congress, says he believes that the way to get people off of welfare is to spend dramatically less on welfare. To actually abandon the entitlement to welfare that FDR enacted, something that Ronald Reagan did not dream of suggesting. Bill Clinton on welfare is more conservative than Ronald Reagan ever was. You couldn't have imagined that level of political expediency in a Democratic politician.

Bob Dole's been everywhere you can be in the Republican world on various positions. He has what are considered liberal Republican voting records on certain issues, he has conservative Republican voting records on other issues. But what has been behind it all for Dole all the way along is what works, and for him the question of what works as a senator and as a majority leader, has also been colored by what works for my next Presidential campaign. What will be best for me in New Hampshire, what will be best for me in a general election. And so it's really a truly extraordinary moment that you have two people who each having the nomination of the opposing party, have such stunningly similar positions on all of the issues. Dole makes a pretty good joke about it you know, these days by saying you know, this is my position today, but you know, Bill Clinton will have the same position within a few days. And it's a joke, it goes a little bit beyond the reality of it, but it's not completely disconnected to the way things are working.

I think Bill Clinton and Bob Dole---- Once they became politicians, they were guided by the exactly the same thing. Which was, whatever it takes, to be re-elected, or elected to the next step up. Their lives, prior to running for office, were really strikingly different and defined largely in fact by their relationship to the central societal question of the day for their age cohort which was what are you going to do in this war? Bob Dole went. Suffered because of it. Had to fight his way back physically. Bill Clinton evaded the draft, much as many of my best friends did. And did something completely different, unthinkable to Bob Dole.

Bill Clinton's position was more complex. Bill Clinton's position was ultimately was part of what got us to pull out of that war. Dole's position was very simple, very clear, very principled, unconfused, but ultimately, with these two totally different approaches, to what seems like a question of duty and a question of morality, they each approached it completely differently. Once they became politicians, they both started to behave in very very very similar ways. Going for the expedient route wherever they could find it.

FL: Can you talk now, analyze Dole's style of dealmaking....

O'DONNELL:

There's a lot of mythology around the way legislative deals are made and you read a lot of press accounts where they talk about arm twisting and convincing this Senator or that Congressman to go along with something. There's very little that happens that in any way that resembles that. The powers don't exist anymore. The candidates, they all raise their own money, they don't need friends like LBJ as majority leader to help them raise money for Senate things like that.

So what Bob Dole has always understood about this is that the most valuable quality that he can bring to his work, is patience. Bob Dole knows, that he is going to be standing at the finish line of every piece of legislation that moves through the Senate. He knew, when he was running things. So he never had to jump in early, to try to get his fingerprints on it, to try to say this is what I want, this is where I'm going to be. He also knew that he could not really control the way these votes were going to line up. That the smarter thing to be able to do, was to anticipate where these Senators were going to line up on their own, get there before them, which he almost always did, and in the process, make them feel lead to it. And he was really quite brilliant at this.

People knew that Dole was always up to something. And they almost always knew that Dole wasn't going to reveal it. That made him the most powerful speaker in any one of the back rooms that I was in with Bob Dole and other Senators. Everybody else would quickly speak their minds, I want this, I think we should do this, I think we should do that. Bob Dole would sit there for half an hour, he wouldn't say a word, and then finally Pat Moynihan would turn to Bob Dole and say something like, 'Well, what do you think Bob?' And Bob Dole would say something like, 'Well, I don't think that's going to happen.' And that would be the end of it.

Other senators in the room could have expended 30 minutes of passionate argument about why this or that should happen, everybody knew that once he had spoken, that was going to be the outcome. Almost all the time. And you could try to struggle against that. The odds of you succeeding against Dole when he had laid down his position, were close to zero.

He was a brilliant tactician on rules of the floor, committee rules, he could stop anything he wanted to. And what was most interesting from my perspective as a Democrat trying to get things done there, was how often Bob Dole didn't stop us. How often he knowingly let us get around him. Let us raise the debt ceiling for example, which he knew had to be done or the country would default on its bonds, but he didn't want to vote for, but he would let it happen. He would kind of make sure it happened in his way.


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