Republicans Against People With Disabilities

If you expected Senate Republicans to have learned any lessons from the drubbing they took in the November elections, you’d have done well to have expected them to learn the wrong lessons. For instead of the humility one might expect from a party in receipt of a comeuppance, Republicans, at least those who fear primary challenges, have learned from their so-to-be-departed enforcer, that, when in the minority, obstruct, obstruct obstruct.

And you might expect the party’s nominee for the presidency to be the party’s standard-bearer in the out years, but Republicans have apparently chosen for that role the former senator from Pennsylvania who lost that nomination to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, but who came closer to winning it than many can bear to remember.

So it was that 38 senators in the Grand Old Party blocked ratification this week of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, at the direction of the party’s most extreme members, most notably a vanquished presidential candidate who once compared gay marriage to beastiality.

On November 26, in the wood-paneled majesty of a Senate hearing room simply known as Dirksen 562, three white men in grey suits stood in the well, taking turns at a microphone to inveigh against the dangers they claimed to lurk in the recesses of an international agreement designed to encourage governments to provide to their people the kind of access and protections provided to people in this country through the Americans With Disability Act. But this was no hearing; it was a press conference called by former G.O.P. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum under the aegis of his recently founded organization, Patriot Voices.

First to speak was Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the man who staged an insurgent candidacy, with the help of FreedomWorks, at the Utah state G.O.P. convention in 2010, and came away the victor when the apparently insufficiently conservative Bob Bennett failed to allow for the massing of Lee delegates organized by the astroturf group.

Lee, a small man of stiff bearing and slicked-back hair, wore a jaunty red tie that popped against the backdrop of his crisp, white shirt, and boasted that he “secured the signatures of 36 Republicans” promising to vote against the treaty, which required, like all treaties, the yea votes of two-thirds of all senators in order to pass. At issue, he said, was the fact that the treaty, in its section on disabled children, embraced a standard called “the best interest of the child,” which he contended would put the rights of parents at risk when it came to determining what is best for their child.

The treaty, Lee continued, would also require “certain entitlements,” such as those provided for by the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women, which, he said had languished without ratification since the 1960s, because “the U.S. regarded those as part of a march toward socialism, and refused to embrace them on that basis.”

Next up was homeschooler and erstwhile presidential candidate Rick Santorum, whose tie was blue, and whose suit was a darker hue of grey. (Read Ed Kilgore on the role of the homeschool lobby in opposing the treaty.) He spoke for a few minutes before being joined at the podium by two of his high-school-age children — daughter Sara Maria, a tall girl in a short kilt and baggy pale blue sweater, and son Daniel, in navy blue sweater and slacks — and wife Karen, dressed in a grey jacket, dark slacks and navy print scarf, her honey-colored hair swept into a barrette at the back of her neck. Struggling in her arms was the Santorums’ youngest child, Bella, wearing a scarlet dress and matching hat. None of the family spoke, except for the father.

“Isabella Maria is a miracle,” Santorum said of his youngest child, who is four years old. “She was born with a condition known as trisomy-18. Look it up in the medical literature; it will say these words: ‘incompatible with life.’ That is her diagnosis, and it is the diagnosis that is accepted across the medical profession.”

I looked up trisomy-18, and did not find that term, “incompatible with life,” in the medical literature that generally described Bella’s condition. What it said was that children with the condition often don’t survive their first year, and have a host of severe maladies.

During the campaign, Santorum cancelled several appearances because of a life-threatening illness contracted by Bella, but here he was, trotting her out as a prop. The Santorums’ seventh child, Santorum wears her disability as proof of his credibility in the antiabortion movement, and often tells the story of his decision with his wife to continue the pregnancy after testing revealed the condition their child would be born with.

Now Santorum was using Bella as the reason for his opposition to the U.N. treaty, which, he said, would enable the government to forbid him to homeschool his own daughter.

“Imagine the situation if now the state — those who are not the parents of these children — have the determination as to what is in the best interest of the child, the best interests of a child who is ‘incompatible with life’ seems to be something incompatible with the way Karen and I view Isabella’s life.”

Bella bucked in her mother’s arms, requiring Karen Santorum to straighten the toddler’s hat.

“And so this is a direct assault on us and our family,” Rick Santorum continued, “to hand over to the state the ability to make medical determinations and see what is in the best interests of the child — and not look at the wonderful gift that every child is and give every child the opportunity.”

As Santorum continued his remarks, his family retreated to the staff seats behind the empty horseshoe-shaped bench at which senators sit during the course of a hearing.

Enter Michael Farris, head of the Home School Legal Defense Association, whose dark grey suit hung a bit off his narrow frame, his blue tie a bit askew. Farris, who sports an unnaturally full head of hair, is also chancellor of the right-wing Patrick Henry College, and recently threatened to sue a group of gay Patrick Henry students for publishing a blog called QueerPMC. (Farris has called same-sex marriage “an abomination.”)

“America should make law for Americans,” Farris said — not the U.N. That appeared to be his first problem with the treaty.

But that wasn’t his only problem. The Obama administration, he claimed, was putting all kinds of wrong ideas in people’s heads about what the treaty really means. “There’s kind of an implied idea that Americans, when we travel abroad, can’t use the pre-existing wheelchair ramps because we haven’t ratified the treaty,” Farris said. “…Somebody needs to do fact-checking on the claims made by the administration and its proponents in the Senate.”

He held up four fingers. “I guarantee you four Pinocchios.”

Farris went on to make a long, rambling statement about having a hard time wheeling his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, around Europe, the threat purportedly posed by the treaty to home-schoolers, how the senators who embraced the treaty never took international law into account, and about how veterans groups that supported the treaty had been “misled.”

But the worst of his ire was reserved for Bob Dole, the now wheelchair-bound Republican former senator, presidential candidate and World War II hero who championed the treaty.

“No matter what people’s intentions are, we have to realize that this is not an altruistic statement,” Farris said of the treaty’s promise to promote the best interest of the disabled child. “This is not something you congratulate a former senator with.”

Before he left the hearing room, Rick Santorum was asked if he planned to run again for president in 2016. He smiled slyly, saying he had yet decided.

When Mike Lee’s 36 anti-treaty GOP senators joined with an additional two Republicans the following week to vote the treaty down, Bob Dole was on hand in the chamber as the senators began to vote. Then his wife, Elizabeth, herself a Republican former senator and presidential candidate, wheeled him out the door before he could witness its defeat.