December 6, 2012

In 1945, in the mountains of northern Italy, a U.S. Army second lieutenant, attempting to reach a downed radio man, fell wounded under a hail of German machine-gun fire. When the lieutenant was brought to the hospital, the doctors at first thought he would die; even after he pulled through surgery, they assumed he would never walk again. But though his right arm, nearly severed by bullets, was forever crippled, the lieutenant did walk again — all the way to Capitol Hill, where Bob Dole would represent the state of Kansas for nearly 40 years in the House and Senate, his career culminating in the Republican Party’s nomination of him for president in 1996.

On Tuesday, as the 89-year-old Dole looked on, the same party that once nominated him cowardly rejected what may very well be his last cause.

Bob Dole
Bob Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, on Election Day 1996 (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

On that day, as you may already know, the Senate voted on the U.N. Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This treaty, which Dole had vocally supported, would extend to the rest of the world many of the rights that disabled Americans already have under the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Such a vote should be a policy and moral no-brainer. But Republicans voted it down; the treaty fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required for ratification.

The 38 Republican senators who voted no felt pressure from the rightward fringe, which fanned fears of a conspiracy where the United Nations and foreign governments could dictate to the parents of disabled children. Sweater enthusiast Rick Santorum, one of the leading opponents of the treaty, demonstrated this bizarre logic when he wrote the day after the vote:

[The treaty] gives too much power to the U.N., and the unelected, unaccountable committee tasked with overseeing its implementation, while taking power and responsibility away from our elected representatives and, more important, from parents and caregivers of disabled persons. … Finally, the treaty doesn’t accomplish the principle purpose that its advocates say it will. Supporters of [the treaty] argue that the United States needed to ratify this treaty in order to give our nation a seat at the table in advocating for the plight of the disabled abroad. … However, the United States passing this treaty would do nothing to force any foreign government to change their laws or to spend resources on the disabled. That is for those governments to decide.

Just to be clear, Santorum is saying that the treaty gives the U.N. too much power, and also that it won’t give the U.N. enough power. Nevertheless, this pseudo-logic seems to have persuaded some of those 38 senators — for instance, Utah’s Mike Lee, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions and Arizona’s Jon Kyl, the four Republicans willing to speak against the treaty from the Senate floor.

But the actions of many of their colleagues makes one doubt how many Republicans truly believed they were doing the right thing.

To begin with, a shocking number of senators changed positions on the treaty at the last minute, without telling disabled groups (including many disabled veterans’ groups) of their reversal.

Foreign Policy reported that the United States International Council on Disabilities and many other groups “had been assured by numerous GOP senators that they would vote in favor of ratification” before they in fact voted “no.” Josh Rogin writes:

Several GOP senators actually RSVPd for a reception held at the Capitol Tuesday morning to honor Dole, a disabled veteran himself, for his decades of work on behalf of the disabled community. [Kansas Sen. Pat] Roberts, along with Sens. Mike Enzi (R-WY), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) all planned to attend the ceremony honoring Dole, but didn’t show up and then voted “no” on the treaty.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) actually did show up to the Dole event, but then voted against the treaty anyway.

In fact, Roberts and his Kansas colleague Jerry Moran voted “no” after personally promising Dole they would support the treaty.

Before the vote was to be taken, Dole rolled in a wheelchair onto the Senate floor, where, as Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner writes:

One by one, Senators of both parties approached [Dole], with former colleagues gently resting their hands on his shoulder or reaching out to his left hand. … Then, one by one, after Dole was wheeled off the floor, most Republicans voted against the measure. Many members did not register their “nay” votes verbally, instead whispering their opposition directly to the clerk or gesturing their hands from their chairs.

These senators shook Dole’s good hand, looked him in the eye and, once he left the floor, turned their backs on him, on his fellow disabled veterans and on disabled people throughout the world. They did not stand tall and proud against the treaty. No, these senators “whispered their opposition” or “gestured from their chairs.” (Remember that senators, no strangers to C-Span, know that the network’s microphones can pick up their votes if they wish to be heard.)

These were not the actions of men and women who were proud of their vote. These senators knew, privately, that their vote was wrong. And yet, pathetically, they did not have the courage or the decency to say so. It was nothing less than moral cowardice, a failure that should shame them for the rest of their lives.

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