Elizabeth Dole looks small and tidy tucked into a corner of the CupaCupa coffee shop, situated on the ground floor of the Watergatecomplex where she lives with husband Bob Dole. (Yes, even she callshim by both names.) The North Carolina senator is, as always,perfectly coiffed and perfectly outfitted in a smart black pantsuitwith a white collarless blouse and just the right amount of gold jewelry sprinkled about. Before I even settle into my seat, Dole asks if I'd like anything to drink and offers up a bottle of springwater already on the table. Her perfectly polished nails arewrapped around a steaming coffee, and, in her trademark honeyeddrawl, she jokes about needing a hand-warmer to defend against thefalling snow. The senator scrunches up her shoulders, gives a mockshiver, and flashes a perfect smile. But, above the smile, herblue-green eyes seem a little tired, and all I can think is, "How much must it suck to be Liddy Dole these days?"
Failure is hard on anyone. But it must be particularly tough for a political celebrity like Dole, with her Miss Perfect persona, to bounce back after the electoral catastrophe she suffered as head ofthe National Republican Senatorial Committee (nrsc) last year. In acycle when the entire GOP came unraveled, Dole was singled out byfellow Republicans, who criticized—well, pretty much every aspectof her performance, from recruiting to strategy to, most notably, fund-raising. As early as August 2005, conservative columnist Robert Novak was declaring that Dole's recruitment efforts had"mostly failed." The following summer, Senator Trent Lott expressedsimilar anxieties ("I'm concerned about how some things have gone," he told the Chicago Tribune), while other Republican lawmakers andstrategists publicly chewed their nails over the growing money gap. As Election Day drew nigh, both Senate Majority Leader Bill Fristand Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman reportedlyhad lost so much confidence in Dole that they were intervening in races independently. Postelection, ousted Montana Senator ConradBurns flamed the nrsc for botching its ad strategy in the state.Even now, some conservatives remain bitter about Dole's support ofthen-Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee's primary fight againstright-winger Steve Laffey. "They spent a tremendous amount—wellover a million—attacking Laffey in the primary, just to watch itgo up in smoke in the general," huffs Club For Growth President PatToomey, whose group championed Laffey. And, even as he praises Doleand her team for doing "a lot of things right," new nrsc chairmanJohn Ensign notes that, "in a hard-money world," Chuck Schumer andthe Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (dscc) "grosslyoutraised the Republican Committee," an outcome he declares"unacceptable."
In retrospect, Dole was perhaps not the best pick for chairwoman.Sure, she's a big-name Republican, which is why she was chosen overSenator Norm Coleman. But she lacks a reputation for being either aruthless money-grubber or a political animal, and so it's unsurprising that, in addition to letting the dscc outraise her by$30 million, Dole was ill-suited to the partisan mud wrestling aspects of the job (especially compared with Democratic counterpart Schumer). Her election oversight, meanwhile, was bashed for being too passive (e.g., failing to drive whackjob Katherine Harris from the Florida race), too aggressive (e.g., bulldozing the Washingtonstate primary field for party favorite Mike McGavick), and evenboth (depending on which side of the Chafee-Laffey divide youstood). No matter that she was operating in one of the mostRepublican-unfriendly climates in memory. And no matter that mostfolks now agree the tight races in places like Virginia andMissouri weren't lost on money. When elections go south, theleadership is a thankless place to be, and the stench of failurenow clings to Dole like poop on a shoe.
Adding injury to insult, in mid-December the senator underwent surgery to replace a bum hip that had been causing pain in her knees and putting a hitch in her gait. "Thirty-nine minutes for the surgery," she explains. "But a heck of a lot longer forrehabilitation." In addition to enduring physical therapy, Dolemust temporarily keep her knees below a certain level, tote arounda cushion to sit on, and take care not to "outpace" herself whenwalking.
And then there's the Hillary thing. Dole has nothing against her NewYork colleague per se. They work together on legislation and meetnow and again at girls-only gatherings organized by Senator Barbara Mikulski. And, yet, it was only two presidential cycles ago that Dole was the hotshot woman making headlines with her historicpresidential campaign. Now, amid all the buzz about the loomingpossibility of a President Hillary, Dole's own run has been all butforgotten—except when it's implicitly derided by talk of Clinton'sstatus as the first real female contender. Though gracious abouther past Oval Office ambitions, Dole clearly remains a littlesensitive about having flamed out so early (if only she hadn'tstuck around reorganizing the Red Cross until January of 1999—adecision she feels compelled to explain to me at some length) andabout the perception that she was not a serious candidate. "I camein third in the Iowa straw poll," she recalls, adding helpfully,"That's a significant event, the Iowa straw poll."
But Dole's moment has passed. Seven years ago, she was vying for herparty's presidential nomination. Today, she finds herself perchedgingerly atop an orthopedic cushion in a near-empty coffee shop,talking about what might have been and trying to move beyond thesting of having helped lead her party into a brutal electoralthrashing. At 70, Dole may well have ridden her celebrity throughto the other side, to join her hubby in some post-stardom emeritusposition of respectability mixed with irrelevance. The situation hasgotten so grim that the North Carolina press has been floatingrumors that Dole might not have it in her to run for Senate againnext year.
Dole isn't one for wallowing, though, and—with a reelection campaign looming—she is clearly eager to make everyone forget allabout the "horrific," "horrendous" experience of 2006 by throwing herself into as many projects as possible. Topping the agenda isher crusade against hunger, which prompted Dole to join colleaguesBlanche Lincoln, Gordon Smith, and Dick Durbin in forming a "hungercaucus." Then there are the economic development programs she'spursuing to help her state weather the ongoing exodus of the textileand furniture industries; her efforts on behalf of militaryfamilies and veterans; her Banking Committee work to establish a"strong, world-class" regulator for government-sponsoredenterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and, of course, herlong-running campaign to win federal recognition for the LumbeeIndian tribe. Of course, with Iraq and deficit-cutting in thespotlight, it remains unclear whether Dole can get anyone to payattention to any of these pet projects—especially now that she hasbeen knocked into the minority. But the senator declares herselfunconcerned. "A lot of this is about relationships, " she assures me, noting that she goes "way back" with many of her Democraticcolleagues.
Asked whether her nrsc stint put a strain on these cross-party ties,Dole demurs, "They expect it. They know you're going to have to getout there and do what you're supposed to do as chairman of thesenatorial committee. Patty Murray's had to do it. A lot of peoplehave had to do it." Here, perhaps fearing that she's sounding a tadthankless, Dole quickly clarifies—"And it's a privilege to be ableto support the team and be a member of the leadership"— but in asing-song voice that sounds like she's reciting boilerplate thateven she doesn't believe. And, then, off she goes again, barrelingtoward the promise of a better tomorrow with talk of all the greatprograms she really wants to launch and all the problems she reallywants to solve. Never has a lawmaker seemed so relieved to abandonthe burdens of party politics.
Indeed, falling flat at the nrsc may be the best thing to happen to Dole since she wed herself a hotshot senator three decades ago.While she occasionally takes a stab at political glamour roles, atheart Liddy seems more bureaucrat than politician. (This is, afterall, the gal who spent two years as Richard Nixon's deputyassistant for Consumer Affairs, six years at the Federal TradeCommission, four-and-a-half years as Ronald Reagan's Transportationsecretary, two years as Poppy Bush's Labor secretary, and eightyears as head of the Red Cross.) It's not that she isn't a pleasant presence on the stump (though perhaps a bit scripted) or that she dislikes fund-raising any more than your average lawmaker. But thewidespread sense of Dole is that she possesses neither the love ofthe game (think Bill Clinton) nor the killer instinct (thinkHillary) so often associated with top-tier political players. Theglad- handing and the fund-raising, the media appearances and thepartisan sparring are all well and good. But give Dole a chance todiscuss overhauling the way community colleges transfer coursecredits between institutions, and she can go on all day—and maybeshe will, now that she's gotten this campaign-chief business out ofher system. And, let's face it, she's unlikely to be asked to do anything like it ever again.