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
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
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....
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
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
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.