Bob Dole and the GOP's disability

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks criticizing the Republican Party and its failed presidential candidate for a lack of compassion and obvious antipathy toward "47 percent" of the electorate (if not a bit more), so it was reassuring to see two of its more prominent leaders offer a message of inclusion and uplift at a Jack Kemp Foundation dinner on Tuesday.

Too bad that on the same day, Republicans were reverting to form in the Senate chamber. There, the late Mr. Kemp's 1996 top-of-ticket running-mate, Bob Dole — recently released from hospital care and assisted by wheelchair — was unable to coax sufficient GOP support for what should have been a no-brainer for members of a truly compassionate party: the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. The treaty failed after falling short of the required two-thirds majority, 61-38.


Never mind the slight to the 89-year-old Mr. Dole. The former Senate majority leader and decorated World War II veteran has likely suffered worse indignities over his lifetime of achievement. But what have the estimated 650 million disabled people living around the globe done to deserve the cold-shoulder treatment from all Senate Republicans, save for eight (John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, John Barrasso, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar and Lisa Murkowski)?

The treaty merely seeks to require countries to recognize the rights of the disabled, as the United States already does. It wouldn't change U.S. law. It would, as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry explained, encourage other nations to develop laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act, which passed 22 years ago, in large part thanks to Mr. Dole's efforts.


But that wasn't enough to satisfy what can only be described as the paranoid wing of the Republican Party, with its history of offering visions of black helicopters and storm troopers whenever the subject of the United Nations comes up. Leading the delusional parade was none other than another failed presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, who, as the father of a developmentally disabled child, should know better than to oppose international human rights.

Mr. Santorum and other opponents seem to believe the treaty was both too powerful — they imagine it would somehow cause the U.N. to trump U.S. law — and not powerful enough, giving signatories like China, Syria and Iran the means to improve their reputations while not actually compelling them to help the disabled. The truth is that it offers a tool to encourage nations to improve their standards, not a seal of approval for those who don't currently meet the mark and, certainly not a challenge to U.S. sovereignty — or any other nation's, for that matter.

But don't take our word for it. Simply observe that the treaty has already been signed by 155 countries and ratified by 126. This isn't controversial stuff on most of the planet, nor in most of this country. Only in the minds of extremists in one political party, who are loath to ever support the United Nations, let alone anything endorsed by President Barack Obama and the Democrats, does a call for human rights motivate such opposition.

Meanwhile, over at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel, Rep. Paul Ryan talked about moving his party in a new direction. He even used such phrases as a "stronger safety net" and "government must act for the common good." He said the party "must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American," which presumably includes disabled war veterans like Mr. Dole. He was accompanied by Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow potential presidential candidate in 2016, who also spoke about a "growing opportunity gap" that may limit the growth of the middle class.

Too bad that Mr. Rubio was one of those who voted against the treaty, although his own father was a victim of polio and he has praised the Americans With Disabilities Act in the past. In a statement, the senator suggested that the State Department could promote disability rights overseas instead (as if the two things were mutually exclusive).

Can the Republican Party ever change? The current lame-duck fiscal cliff stalemate over tax rates for the richest 2 percent of Americans — and the prospect that many in the GOP would rather block an increase in those rates than reduce taxes for the other 98 percent — suggests sweet reason remains in short supply in the Republican caucus, whatever rebranding its prospective presidential candidates may have to offer.