Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The "loyal opposition" or just the opposition?

Following the election there’s been much talk about the Republican Party soul-searching. They’re said to be looking for a way to become more “people-friendly.” But it’s as hard for an elephant to shed its trunk as it is for a zebra to change its stripes. Working from their old script, senate Republicans recently blocked ratification of a UN Treaty protecting disabled people. Mike Enzi, for whom I have great respect, broke ranks with John Barrasso joining 37 other GOP senators to tell disabled people they don’t matter.

Symbolic of how Republicans have moved from their roots was how they ignored former Kansas Senator and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. The disabled Dole urged support for the treaty but they walked by his wheel chair on their way to vote no.

Dole said the treaty is good for the world and protects millions of disabled persons worldwide. He said it represents American values embedded in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Dole’s presence spoke of a time when his party’s leaders understood the role of Congress, a time when the minority party was the “loyal opposition” and not simply the opposition.

President George H.W. Bush proposed the ADA in 1990. It was opposed by many of the same religious and “family values” groups that opposed this treaty. The Association of Christian Schools International and the National Association of Evangelicals lobbied against Bush. This time similar groups joined homeschoolers urging the treaty’s rejection. The difference between 1990 and 2012 is this time the Republicans couldn’t say no to those fringe groups.

Senator Enzi explained his vote. “The United States is already doing much more than most countries to help people with disabilities.” Senator Dole said much the same thing though his thinking led to a conclusion that America should demonstrate those values by supporting a treaty extending the same protections to people around the world.

There was also a revival of that old “Get US out of the UN” thinking. Enzi criticized the United Nations. “My experience with UN treaties, however, is that UN committees do reports on U.S. noncompliance regardless of the realities of U.S. law. Often these committees are made up of individuals who represent the worst offenders in terms of human rights violations who take every opportunity to attack the United States.  We get written up unfavorably with no comparison to other countries.” His vote may have had more to do with an anti-UN attitude than with the disabled.

But the Kansas City Star was appalled at how Dole was treated by former colleagues. The editor said, “One reason for his appearance was to emphasize how the Americans With Disabilities Act aids injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” adding that Senator Enzi and the other 37 Republicans “undercut America as a global leader of human rights. And they disrespected Dole as an American war hero.”
The insult was compounded when GOP senators listened instead to Rick Santorum and his typically bizarre arguments. Santorum, the 2012 presidential primary darling of the religionists, was upset about a section reading, “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” How radical is that?
Dole urged former colleagues to support protections for the disabled. Santorum warned them, “This is a direct assault on us and our family!” Enzi and the rest listened to Santorum and ignored Dole.
The rejection of the treaty was an affront to disabled people and their advocates. One hundred twenty-six other nations ratified. Not the United States of America.
The real insult was to American governance. Bob Dole represents what made Congress work. Santorum represents what makes it dysfunctional. And Santorum won decisively. The GOP made it clear that politicians like Dole are dinosaurs, replaced by the Santorums. That’s a prescription for making sure the 47% Mitt Romney predicted will always vote against GOPers will soon be more than 50%. If they stay on this path, Republicans will soon be as lonely in Congress as Democrats are now in the Wyoming legislature.

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