Cruelty, fear, cowardice, xenophobia and disrespect invaded the inner sanctum of the U.S. government this week, bringing embarrassment and dishonor to what was once the greatest deliberative body in the world: the U.S. Senate.
On Dec. 4, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, an 89- year-old Republican whose right arm was shattered in combat during World War II, was wheeled into the Senate chamber by his wife to rally support for a United Nations treaty that should have been entirely unobjectionable.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by more than 150 nations, takes a stand against "discrimination on the basis of disability" and in favor of "respect for inherent dignity." It's a largely symbolic document with implementation language that consists mostly of a weak recommendation for "due consideration" of its lofty aims. Even so, with U.S. leadership, it could promote compassion for the disabled in dozens of countries where they are cruelly shunned.
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who long ago discredited himself as a serious person by championing junk science on climate change, said on the Senate floor, "This unelected bureaucratic body would pass recommendations that would be forced upon the United States if we were a signatory." That's completely false. Not a single clause or phrase in the treaty impinges on national sovereignty, unless one believes -- as some xenophobic neo-isolationists do -- that the UN itself is a threat to the U.S.
Dole's dramatic appearance was meant to advance the values of compassion and nondiscrimination, not the UN. He was trying to rally the 13 Republican senators needed to reach the two- thirds supermajority necessary for ratification. All Democrats voted in favor. In the end, only eight Republicans voted "aye," almost all of them senators who have announced plans to retire or are in safe seats.
Sometimes-reasonable Republicans such as Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee were profiles in cowardice and voted no. They fear primary challenges in 2014 from radicals in their party. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, his common sense and conscience succumbing to right-wing nonsense in real time, changed his vote from "aye" to "nay" when he saw the measure would lose.
As the New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte pointed out, the only impact the treaty would have on Americans would be to make it easier for disabled people to live and work in other countries. Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which was signed by Republican President George H. W. Bush, said Dole had come to the chamber because "he wants to know that other countries will come to treat the disabled as we do." Imagine that: Taking a stand for basic human decency around the world.
Opposition to the treaty was led by two of the party's ayatollahs: former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and the talk-show host Glenn Beck. None of their arguments made sense even on their own terms. It was especially disturbing that Santorum brought his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, into the debate. He argued, preposterously, that under the treaty the UN could order that she be left to die. Lest we forget, Santorum took a credible shot at the Republican presidential nomination this year and could be a contender for 2016.
The big question in U.S. politics is how to stop the Republican Party from sinking into the role of what Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called "the stupid party." The negative attention generated by the primary victories of radicals such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana -- who both self-destructed this year over ugly comments about rape -- might be good for Democrats in the short-run. Long-term, though, a healthy two-party system is in everyone's best interest.
The options for Republicans are simple. They can do nothing and allow the Santorums and Inhofes to hijack the party. Or they can move past the post-election rationalizations and create what might be called a "Real Republican" movement.
One immediate response should be to finance and repurpose the conservative super political-action committees that made such a splash in 2012. Unless the Supreme Court changes, those groups are going to be with us for a while; they might as well be put to good use.
Although super-PACs failed spectacularly in the general election, several shaped the outcome of the Republican presidential primaries. They need to be involved in the 2014 House and Senate primaries on behalf of fiscally conservative candidates, not fringe players badly out of touch with the mainstream of the country.
Eventually, both parties must look beyond their narrow self-interest and get serious about reforming the primary process. California, Washington state and Louisiana now have top-two systems in which the first- and second-place primary finishers, regardless of party, are on the ballot in the November general election.
The top-two arrangement, though it was defeated in a referendum last month in Arizona, has led to some strange repeat matches involving candidates from the same party, such as California Democratic Representatives Howard Berman and Brad Sherman running against each other in both the primary and the general. (Sherman won.) So far, there's scant evidence of the new approach yielding more moderate candidates in the general election. But it's early yet -- California's system debuted this year -- and experiments in other states could lead to the loosening of the radical- Republican stranglehold on so many primaries.
The U.S. primary system, a product of the Progressive movement, is only about 100 years old. It can be changed without messing with the Constitution. If we want to see fewer displays of craven behavior such as the rejection of the disabilities treaty, let's rescue our politics from the forces of extremism.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One."