Dole's effectiveness in Senate questioned

She arrived as a political rock star. But the former presidential candidate has turned out to be a quieter presence in Congress.

09/29/2008 12:00 AM

09/29/2008 6:11 AM

Second of two parts

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has been telling economic advisers, media, constituents and anyone else who will listen that she knew years ago this financial crisis was coming.

She was on the phone again Thursday morning with a banker friend in Wilmington.

“You know, all this could have been avoided,” she told him. “Back in 2003, I had legislation with…”

She named the senators she had joined, described how year after year their bill to rein in two giant mortgage companies couldn't gain support to pass.

“It was like David and Goliath…” she said.

Dole was supposed to be North Carolina's Goliath. She joined the U.S. Senate in 2003 with a hefty resume as a two-time Cabinet member, one-time presidential candidate and former head of one of the nation's largest charities. She was one of politics' true rock stars.

Instead, Dole has spent her first term in a lower-key role. Now, as she seeks a second term, she faces questions about how much she has accomplished for North Carolina. One of the highest-profile ads of the campaign criticizes her effectiveness.

“If you look for things she's done, you have to look hard and long to find those things,” said Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. “She's more of a silent senator in many respects.”

Dole says she has a long list of achievements in the Senate.

Indeed, she blocked some international trade deals until they included provisions to shield local textile companies from overseas competition. She led an effort to protect military families from predatory lending, and she forced the Navy to provide information to Marines who might have ingested toxic water decades ago at Camp Lejeune.

In other situations, as in her work to oppose the Navy's outlying landing field in Eastern North Carolina, she came late to the game.

Her star turn at the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee ended miserably when Republicans lost control of the Senate, and she has been frustrated at efforts to earn federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe and to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“We have led the way on so many different issues,” Dole said in an interview last week. “It's not about aggrandizement for me. It's what matters for North Carolina.”

Supporters praise hard work

Her Senate friends say she's among its hardest workers.

“Truthfully, a lot of senators just sort of do their bit, but she really works a lot of these issues,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who works with Dole on the Armed Services committee.

Dole was an executive before she came to Capitol Hill, but getting things done in the Senate isn't so much about calling the shots as working the room. Some observers say she has faltered.

“She didn't come in with a clear set of priorities and so has meandered a little bit,” said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

In two of Dole's highest-profile achievements – the tobacco buyout and the military base realignment – the freshman senator was a significant player in team efforts.

But Dole doesn't appear often on national television or at many news conferences in Washington. At hearings, she often reads her questions to witnesses and does not always offer follow-ups.

At the Senate Banking Committee hearing last week, shown live on national television, senators quick-fired questions at Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke about the $700billion Wall Street bailout proposal.

When her turn came, Dole read her single question off a prepared script.

Her query, and the economic advisers' answers, took up her allotted time of five minutes.

“She is not perceived as terribly aggressive,” Duffy said.

Collegial style noted

Some of Dole's colleagues say her lack of aggression reflects a collegial style that earns across-the-aisle support.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an S.C. Republican, said Democrats and Republicans seek out Dole as a co-sponsor because she is a high- profile senator and listens to their concerns.

Dole, he pointed out, was one of the Republican leaders on a bipartisan effort to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to military families caring for wounded soldiers. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

It was one of several situations in the past year in which Dole has, as the election neared, shifted into a bipartisan gear. With the shift, she drifted away from an increasingly unpopular President Bush.

For example:


Long after other Republicans had raised doubts about the war in Iraq, Dole surprised listeners at an Armed Services hearing in fall 2007 when she criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war.


Last October, Dole was one of three Republican senators up for re-election who joined a bipartisan climate-change bill. She wrote an opinion piece published in the Observer saying carbon emissions generated by humans were largely to blame for global warming.


And this year, Dole bucked Bush on his efforts to squeeze some hospitals out of Medicaid dollars, a cut that would have taken $300 million from North Carolina. She helped impose a one-year moratorium on his plans.

On other issues, Dole has taken a hard line.

Conservative Senate voice

Dole is one of the conservative voices in the Senate. She voted with her party more than 95 percent of the time in her first two years in Congress, according to a Washington Post database, but only 88 percent of the time since Republicans lost control.

But Dole turns further right on social issues. The National Journal's rankings of 2007 votes have Dole among the top three most socially conservative members of the Senate. She ranks lower on the chart on economic and foreign policy issues.

More than a year ago, Dole jumped on the high-profile issue of immigration.

On Capitol Hill, she joined a group of senators to block comprehensive immigration reform, including giving temporary legitimacy to millions of illegal immigrants.

In North Carolina, Dole helped the state sheriffs association develop its own federal partnership to arrest and deport suspected illegal immigrants.

“(We should) rush to secure communities,” Dole said in an interview last year as she began her work with sheriffs. “Folks tell me over and over again that we're not enforcing our laws, and obviously that's the case.”

This spring she filmed a political ad with many sheriffs backing her candidacy.

Dole's first bill, calling for federal recognition of the Lumbee Indian tribe of Robeson County, has not passed the Senate. It did make it through the U.S. House (under the guidance of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina) and through a Senate committee.

In 2004, Dole served as chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, charged with keeping the Senate in Republican hands.

It was a tough job with elements beyond her control, including the high-profile missteps in Iraq and the lobbying scandals in Washington. In November 2006, Republicans lost six seats and control of the Senate.

Financial crisis frustration

But perhaps her greatest frustration has been the past month's financial crisis.

Dole was not the author, but was an original co-sponsor, of legislation as early as 2003 that would have regulated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two companies, which help prop up the nation's affordable housing market, were among the first financial institutions to falter this summer.

The oversight bill Dole pushed for would have created a new federal regulator for the agencies. It would have required annual audits and included the ability to dissolve a failing enterprise, protecting the country against a taxpayer bailout, the senators said in 2005.

The oversight bill met resistance from Democrats and couldn't get passed in the Republican-controlled Senate in 2005. But elements of the legislation became law in July when Congress passed its housing rescue bill for the troubled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Dole says she was trying to do the right thing, but was stymied in the process.

Some doubt her sincerity.

“If that is what she claims is the sole silver bullet here, I would be skeptical,” said U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat. He said he was unaware that she was working on legislation involving Fannie and Freddie.

But Dole was reminding folks again, Thursday morning, on the phone in her office.

“It could've been prevented, if people had taken this legislation seriously.” she was saying to the Wilmington banker.

“It's just so frustrating.”

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