Bob Dole likes nothing better than salting his conversation with wry barbs, often aimed at Bob Dole. He even pokes fun at his presidential ambitions, which are complicated by the fact that this year he will frequently find himself at odds with Ronald Reagan or congressional Republicans or both over issues like tax reform and the budget. "I've been trying to keep one foot in 1988," he noted as he relaxed on a plane trip from his native Kansas last week. "Or one toe maybe. I may not have a foot in it."
With his full-throttle metabolism, the acerbic Senate majority leader seems energized by confrontation, and he is braced for a good dose of it once Congress returns this week. Reagan will be pushing the Senate to overhaul the tax-reform plan passed by the House last year and to make difficult new cuts in domestic spending. Most Senate Republicans feel that tangling with tax reform is less important than tackling the budget; as Dole well knows, addressing that mess requires military cuts and tax increases that will raise Reagan's ire. How Dole handles his task as ringmaster of this cantankerous session could determine whether the Republicans hold the Senate this fall and whether he can achieve the statesmanlike stature necessary for a credible candidacy in 1988.
Howard Baker, Dole's gentlemanly predecessor as Republican leader, was a master at putting a soothing arm on colleagues' shoulders to achieve cloakroom compromises. In 1984 he decided to retire from the battle to position himself better for 1988. Dole, while philosophically similar, has an altogether different temperament that keeps him in the midst of the fray. Driven by his own strong ideas, he is more prone than Baker to do battle rather than seek consensus when disputes erupt. "Howard," Dole concedes, "was a bit more careful than I am in saying, 'Now boys, what can we do to work this out?' "
In his own defense, Dole points out that he was able to stitch together a number of compromises last year. The most significant was a new five-year farm bill, for which Dole led the tortuous negotiations. It was a triumph for him when Reagan signed the measure last month. Last spring, however, Dole was denied a larger victory. Courageously, he rammed through the Senate a politically risky anti-deficit package, including a deferral of Social Security increases. But Reagan reneged on the deal, leaving Dole and other Senate Republicans dangling.
Dole's foremost challenge this session will be pulling Congress and the White House together on a fiscal 1987 budget that will whack some $60 billion from the deficit and thus avoid the automatic cuts of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings meatax. Addressing the American Farm Bureau Federation in Atlanta last week, he advocated economies across the board, sparing neither social programs nor Reagan's sacred defense buildup. He has also been prodding the White House, which distrusts Dole because of his skepticism about supply-side tax cuts, to be more realistic. Though he insists he will no longer lead the crusade for additional taxes ("I'm going to let someone else take the beating"), Dole clearly wants to change Reagan's mind. "Now I may be at odds with the White House," he says, "but it's pretty hard for us in Congress if we're told that defense is off limits, Social Security is off limits, you can't [increase] revenues."