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Bob Dole dies at 98, leaving lasting legacies on Social Security and food assistance

·Washington Correspondent
·7-min read

Bob Dole, a former Senate majority leader who unsuccessfully ran for president against Bill Clinton, died Sunday. He was 98 years old. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth Dole, who was also a U.S. senator, and a daughter, Robin, from a previous marriage.

One of the giants of American politics in the 20th century, Dole will be remembered for his heroism in World War II, his time as Senate Majority Leader, his 1996 run for president, and even his unlikely turn in a commercial for the maker of Viagra.

But perhaps two of his most enduring legacies on American life came earlier in his nearly 50-year-long career in public office. As a U.S. Senator, Dole was at the center of deals on the Social Security program and on food stamps (now known as SNAP) that have left lasting imprints on how Americans interact with these two programs.

In his memoir, "One Soldier’s Story," Dole wrote that when he is asked about the accomplishments in the Senate he is most proud of, his "answer sometimes surprises people” — he listed Social Security as his top answer alongside passing the Americans with Disabilities act, a civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on disability.

WASHINGTON DC,  - JUNE 6: Senator Bob Dole about to be photographed on the  Capital Hill in Washington DC on June 6, 1996. (Photo by Yunghi Kim/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Senator Bob Dole at the Capitol in Washington DC in 1996. (Yunghi Kim/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Dole was a partisan warrior but also, later in his career, co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington.

Dole was one of the few traditional Republican elders who endorsed Donald Trump during the former President's 2016 run. He again supported Trump in 2020 and then during a 2021 interview - on the occasion of his 98th birthday - Dole reaffirmed his support to USA Today but added, "I'm sort of Trumped out, though." Dole also said "I do believe we've lost something" when it came to the political discourse compared to his time in office.

To mark a series on leadership which the Center named after Dole and his wife, BPC President Jason Grumet noted in 2019, “Bob and Elizabeth Dole’s exemplary careers demonstrate that it is possible to be a proud partisan while building coalitions that have changed our country for the better.”

‘One more try’ on Social Security

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan asked Dole — then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — to serve on a new “National Commission on Social Security Reform.”

The problem the group faced was a mighty one, as the retirement security program, many feared, headed for financial ruin. In 1983, after over a year of gridlock, Senator Dole led a last-ditch effort to find a deal. He succeeded and eventually worked out a bill with Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

The resulting legislation reshaped the program by increasing the payroll tax rate, adding more workers to the system, and slowly increasing the benefits age.

President Ronald Reagan signs the Social Security Act Amendment with Vice President George Bush (far r), Senator Bob Dole (2nd from l), and Congressmen Tip O'Neill (4th from r) and Daniel Moynihan (5th from r) on hand as witnesses. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
President Ronald Reagan signs the Social Security Act Amendment with Dole (2nd from l), on hand as a witness. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Writing in U.S. News & World Report in 2009, political historian Matthew Dallek wrote that the law "cemented a reigning political consensus on Social Security" — that it could not be obliterated. Just a few years prior, Reagan had criticized the program and even suggested it should be voluntary.

Upon signing the bill in 1983, Reagan said, “Today, all of us can look each other square in the eye and say, ‘We kept our promises.”

For years after the 1983 deal was signed, including his 1996 speech accepting the Republican nomination, Dole could tout that he “saved” Social Security.

To be sure, Social Security is far from guaranteed for generations to come. The program currently faces a possible funding shortfall — which could come as early as the end of the decade — and would likely take the form of benefit reductions across the board. However, back in 1983, the prospect of a funding shortfall was measured in months.

A bill to ‘change the Food Stamp program significantly’

The food stamp program is another facet of American life that Bob Dole left a key imprint on, though it had already existed for decades when he got closely involved in the late 1970s.

He had long worked closely on agriculture policy, a key priority for his Kansas constituents, and the two issues are often linked together in legislation.

Dole found an unlikely ally in liberal Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, and they fashioned a deal that significantly reformed the program. They worked with a group of Senators, including Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, to tackle issues like purchase requirements that left some poor people unable to afford the program.

The purchase requirement was a contentious issue, Bill Hoagland, who worked with Senator Dole in many capacities over the years, told Yahoo Finance. Hoagland, who at one point worked as an administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, and remembers "they had buttons on the Hill that we were wearing” calling for an end to the purchase requirement.

Unspecified - 1972: Senator George McGovern, Senator Bob Dole on Walt Disney Television via Getty Images's 'Issues and Answers' program. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Senators George McGovern, left, and Bob Dole appeared together in 1972 on ABC's 'Issues and Answers' program. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

The final bill eliminated the requirement and also reflected key Republican priorities by encouraging work. It tightened eligibility requirements by penalizing people who voluntarily quit their jobs and then applied for the program and also eliminating some college students from the program.

In January 1979, the program eliminated the purchase requirements that people actually purchase stamps, and participation that month jumped by 1.5 million. “It was a big deal,” Hoagland recalls about the deal being struck. The deal helped ensure the program remained “the one universal program for assistance to low income families out there,” he said.

There's obviously less bipartisan collaboration these days. "You just have to realize it was a much different Senate," Hoagland said. It probably helped that Dole had a special stature because of his war record and his reputation across the aisle as a pragmatist, according to Hoagland.

Dole and McGovern worked together across the aisle on food security for decades, even though they occupied opposite ends of the spectrum on most issues. In 2008, they became the co-recipients of the World Food Prize for their work in establishing the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which provides meals for school-aged children around the world.

In 2008, in an effort to fight stigma, the name of the program changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Otherwise, the program has persevered and become an important lifeline for many families during the coronavirus pandemic. In one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to encourage increased federal food assistance through the program.

Countless other legacies

Dole leaves behind a wide array of other legacies. He served as the Senate Majority or Minority leader for over a decade from 1985 to 1996. During that time, he was key in getting the Americans with Disabilities act passed into law in 1990, and he helped defeat President Bill Clinton's health care plan a couple years later.

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole (L) makes a point during the first of the presidential debates against U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford Connecticut, October 6. Standing a few feet apart behind lecterns, the two candidates hammered at each other in a 90-minute encounter. Dole attacked Clinton on foreign policy, drugs, the economy and his own credibility.
Senator Dole, left, during a presidential debate against President Bill Clinton on October 6, 1996.

He also unsuccessfully ran for vice president in 1976 and then tried for the top job in 1980 and 1988 before finally securing the nomination in 1996. Dole also became widely known, after he retired from public office following his 1996 loss to Bill Clinton, for his appearances in television ads.

His spot for the drug-maker Pfizer (PFE), the maker of Viagra, in 1998 urged men to get help with erectile dysfunction. He also filmed multiple ads for Pepsi, appearing alongside Britney Spears in one and referencing his Viagra spot in another. In the latter spot, he talked about his “faithful little blue friend” before revealing that he was talking about a can of Pepsi (PEP).

He wrote in his book that he later learned after appearing in an ad for Visa (V) that "more people saw me in that one television commercial during the Super Bowl than the number who watched the Clinton presidential inauguration."

In 2016, Dole endorsed former President Donald Trump as other former Republican presidential nominees kept their distance. In 2020, he said that the commission overseeing the presidential debates was biased against Trump during his contest against Biden.

Nevertheless, soon after he announced he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, Biden visited Dole to offer his support on Feb. 20. In the past Biden, who served alongside Dole in the Senate, has called the Republican a “close friend.”

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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