Sen. Bob Dole's final column: 'Too many of us have sacrificed too much'

This is Sen. Dole’s final op-ed. He began drafting it, with pen and paper, in October and finished it on Nov. 23. He died on Sunday.

Dwight Eisenhower said America is best described by the word "freedom." It’s an all-purpose sort of word, one that we salute like the flag on the Fourth of July, even if no two of us define it in exactly the same way. This gives rise to a perpetual tug of war between those on the left who look to an activist government to broker economic security and a level playing field without which democratic capitalism can degenerate into mere survival of the fittest, and those on the right who pursue freedom from – especially from heavy-handed dictation, stifling taxes or overregulation that can smother individual initiative and discourage social mobility.

Conservatives put their faith in the marketplace, even while conceding its imperfections. When I was growing up in Dust Bowl Kansas, drought didn’t wear a party label. I saw too many decent, hardworking people, exponents of rugged individualism, who played by the rules but were denied prosperity by factors beyond their control – or Washington’s. In the U.S. Army, I submitted to the temporary regimentation required to ensure an Allied victory. It didn’t erode my self-reliant values. But it did reinforce my belief in teamwork.

And that is why teamwork is needed in Washington now more than ever. During my years in Congress, Democrats and Republicans were political combatants, but we were also friends. I learned that it is difficult to get anything done unless you can compromise – not your principles but your willingness to see the other side. Those who suggest that compromise is a sign of weakness misunderstand the fundamental strength of our democracy.

Bob Dole's abiding legacy: A belief in hard work, an aversion to big talk and Kansas roots he never lost

Conservatives as innovators

During my early years in the Senate, eager to demonstrate that conservatives could be legislative innovators, I supported Richard Nixon’s small government approach to national health insurance and welfare reform. Later I worked across the aisle and with the George H.W. Bush White House to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Finally, nothing in public life gave me more satisfaction than teaming up with my Democratic colleague, Sen. George McGovern, to combat hunger in this country and abroad. We set aside past political battles because putting food on the table is the least partisan act imaginable.

Today, I am proud to say our work lives on with the USDA’s McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. This initiative supports educational efforts to some of the most impoverished areas around the globe while also fostering child development and food security in low-income, food-deficit countries.

Cartoonist Mike Thompson: They don't make 'em like Bob Dole anymore

President Harry Truman famously observed that the chief function of the modern presidency is persuasion. But what if our leaders, whatever their politics, find themselves shouting into the wind in a culture incapable of working across a partisan political divide?

Meaningful change comes to the country when everyone puts aside their party label and works for the good of the country. That is why 15 years ago, I teamed up with Sen. Howard Baker and two former Democratic rivals, Sen. George Mitchell and Sen. Tom Daschle, to create the Bipartisan Policy Center. It is critical to understand that we did not create the nonpartisan, post-partisan or meta-partisan policy center. A functioning democracy thrives on debate between those with opposing views. The Bipartisan Policy Center is a unique place where proud partisans validate American democracy by proving we need not agree on everything to agree on some.

'None of this is easy'

In Congress, as in life, it always helps to have an eye for the big picture. These deep-seeded political divisions are playing out within each party, but with the Democrats now in control, it is especially evident as I watch from the sidelines of this tug of war between progressives and more moderates. I can speak from experience on this as well. When votes came and we lost, we did not have time for hard feelings. The next day needed to be business as usual as we moved on to the next battle. I remember an intraparty fight over a Balanced Budget Amendment. The vote was 50-50. When we lost, a couple of my Republican colleagues wanted to ban from the party the senator who voted against the amendment. My political opponent on one day often became a friend and supporter on another day. I never took it personally, nor should those in Congress today.

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None of this is easy – any more than finding a definition of freedom with which 330 million Americans can agree. This much we know. Too many of us have sacrificed too much in defending that freedom from foreign adversaries to allow our democracy to crumble under a state of infighting that grows more unacceptable by the day. Take it from Eisenhower and the dwindling band of brothers who fought under his command: “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

And take it from me: Our history is rich with political debate and deep divisions, but collectively we share a common purpose for a better America. We cannot let political differences stand in the way of that common good.

Bob Dole represented Kansas in the House of Representatives from 1961 to 1969, and then the U.S. Senate from 1969 to 1996, including as Senate Republican leader, and was the 1996 GOP presidential nominee. He co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2007.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bob Dole's final ask: For Democrats, Republicans to put politics aside