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Editorial: Triumph of Heartlessness

It takes a certain kind of person to be visited by a revered former leader — an aging, disabled war hero who hauled himself out of the hospital to underscore the importance of doing the right thing on behalf of the disadvantaged — and remain completely unmoved.

Yes, we’re talking about the Republican Party, or at least the contemporary version of it. Representatives of an earlier incarnation of the GOP — when it was still capable of subordinating the demands of ideology to the needs of human beings — made an appearance in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to urge ratification of a United Nations treaty protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The treaty failed to secure the necessary two-thirds vote because all but eight members of the Republican caucus voted against it. (To her credit, New Hampshire’s Sen. Kelly Ayotte was one of the eight.)

Most prominent among the treaty proponents was Bob Dole, the former Senate leader and one-time Republican presidential nominee who has been a forceful advocate for the rights of the disabled since suffering permanent injuries during his service in World War II. But the Dole who was once able to rally his party into taking the lead in protecting the rights of the disabled — the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law at his urging under President George H.W. Bush — holds little sway among the current crop of GOP senators. Neither Dole nor the justice of his cause has changed, but the makeup of the party has.

The treaty, already signed by 155 countries and ratified by 126 of them, calls on nations to ensure that disabled people enjoy the same rights and privileges as all others. Its force is mostly hortatory — it simply affirms the need to protect the rights of a group that has long faced discrimination and unnecessary barriers to full participation in society. Although the treaty would establish a committee to make recommendations about how the rights of the disabled can best be advanced, supporters say it would have no authority to intervene in individual nations’ affairs. Not that the United States would have to worry in any case; it remains a leader among nations in disability rights, partly due to the good work Dole has done.

In other words, ratification of the treaty was mostly a symbolic statement, albeit an important one.

But when it comes to exerting influence over Republican senators, Dole cannot compete against ideologic bogeymen. Appeals to do the right thing provoked warnings that all but equated ratification of the treaty to welcoming fleets of black helicopters full of foreigners intent on undermining U.S. sovereignty.

“I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla — a statement that in an earlier era might have been confined to a small gathering of kooks, but now is standard fare on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Fear not for Bob Dole. He had the good sense to be wheeled out of the chamber prior to the vote, and, in truth, enduring this display of ignorant jingoism doesn’t really compare to some of the other challenges he has met over his 89 years.

But it does raise legitimate concern for what it portends about the fate of other sensible measures that come before Congress if the Republican Party doesn’t soon reclaim its senses.