Common Ground: Can Disability Provide an Angle to Move beyond Partisanship?

I was fairly politically unformed when I worked as a policy intern for United Cerebral Palsy in Washington, but if you asked me, I’m sure I would have told you I was a Democrat. I’m pretty sure that both of my mentors were Republicans, since one of them had worked in the first Bush White House, and the other had a lobbying resume that one does not associate with the liberal agenda, but I honestly didn’t know, because we were avowedly nonpartisan. Disability, we said, was not a partisan issue. Certainly, the heroes of the ADA include liberal icons like Coelho and Harkin, but also conservative stalwarts like Dole and Hatch. The law was triumphantly signed by a supportive George HW Bush, and aggressively implemented by Bill Clinton. Many like to think that this is because it is a cause so universally good or right that it transcends ideological bounds.

While certainly human sentiment played a role, I think that this is terribly simplistic. Very few people view themselves, or their positions as wrong, or evil. Rather, in the face of conflicting values, people choose based on the ideologies that are most important to them.

For instance, notwithstanding Mitt Romney’s taste for his own foot, I really doubt that he has anything against the idea of helping people in need. he is simply viscerally opposed to that help being provided in the form of government payments. He thinks that not good for society. I disagree, but this post is not about welfare.

So, then, perhaps the unity around the ADA was really a function of the fact that there was agreement upon both the goal, establishing legal equality as a foundation for economic and social equality for people with disabilities, and the means, enacting a broad antidiscrimination law. With neither side objecting to the other’s goal or means, cooperation was not only possible but desirable.

A recent column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post noted that Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist had found common ground over the minimum wage. Writes Milbank:

Democrats have made the argument that an increase is morally right and that the only thing standing in the way is corporate greed. That may be so, but it hasn’t won them enough Republican support to get the increase through Congress. But what if Democrats were to make a free-market argument that a higher minimum wage would shrink the federal government and reduce the welfare state?

That’s the argument Ron Unz made to Nader’s gathering.

The government spends over $250 billion a year in social welfare programs aimed at the working poor,” he said, addressing the group via Skype. “If we simply made the working poor much less poor by raising their wages to a much more reasonable level, a lot of that money would be saved, probably in the range of $40 to $50 billion a year.” The $250 billion spent on welfare for the working poor, Unz said, amounts to a “massive subsidy for businesses” that are paying less than a living wage and “forcing taxpayers to make up the difference.”

Call me a cynical centrist, but I could paraphrase this long quote by saying, “Liberals ’ argument that this made them feel good was minimally successful at winning over economic conservatives. Once they were able to demonstrate that the apparent feel-good measure was also likely to be economically successful in raising the target population out of poverty, economic conservatives began to get on board.”

Now, I’m no fan of ideologues on either side, and God knows that there are plenty of folks in Washington today who vote ideology regardless of what makes sense, as was sadly demonstrated in the knee-jerk ideological vote against the ratification of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in the United States Senate, despite the fact that it was patterned after the ADA, and supported by Senator Dole and the first President Bush. Further, I am liberal, and fundamentally disagree with the conservative positions on issues ranging from gun control to a woman’s right to choose.

That said, I think policy advocates in general, and disability advocates in specific, could use to do work finding common ground among individuals who disagree based not on ideology, but on a differing conclusion as to what makes good policy. Here, political deal making is not so much holding your nose to appease your opponent as addressing your opponent’s valid concerns. This passed the ADA, and, if we are to believe Dana Milbank, Ralph Nader, and Grover Norquist, could create a coalition around the minimum wage. Surely this will not appeal to true libertarians, and will be insufficient to appease true socialists, but, being workable policy for the laudable goal of raising partners out of poverty might be a blueprint to get something done.

Disability advocates should be looking for these points of commonality. As I point out in my Chutes and Ladders post, sliding scale premium, uncapped non-asset tested Medicaid buy-ins for working personal care users with disabilities is such an area. It promotes employment in independence while ultimately lowering costs of government benefits and raising quality of life for people with disabilities. The baseline for universal support among practical minded politicians is that the end is good in the numbers make sense.

We are always going to have areas of ideology where we disagree. My challenge to any advocate reading this is to begin building coalitions by helping reasonable people focus on the items that just make sense. As we come upon 24 years of the ADA, we have living proof of just what that can accomplish.