Deepish Thoughts From A Contentious Debate: 8th Democratic Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m burned out on debates. There were moments during Wednesday night’s Democratic Presidential debate when I wanted to shove an ice pick into my left ear, just for a bit of distraction.

It was still a more issue-centered, substantive debate than many we have seen, but only because both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton tried to steer things back to real issues, while the moderators took every opportunity to bait them with accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Did Sanders oppose the auto industry rescue package? Did Clinton lie to soldiers’ families after Benghazi? Is Sanders secretly anti-immigrant? Is Clinton a covert agent of the Big Banks? Which is worse, Sanders’ approving words about Fidel Castro’s health care and education achievements, or Clinton’s respect for Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy experience?

Let’s stipulate that both of these people have taken some shady positions and questionable votes in the past. Sometimes it was for politically tactical reasons. Occasionally it’s because political ideas evolve, and yes, there are political fads. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was fashionable for a certain kind of liberal to shock people by admiring Castro and revisiting sordid moments in our relations with other countries. In the ‘90s, cutting edge, winning Democrats deliberately broke old stereotypes by “getting tough” on crime and embracing the use of force to get things “good things” done in the world. We hope an extraordinary leader worthy of the Presidency would rise above passing political fashions, but that’s a rare thing to find in real life. Most politicians are products of their times and environments.

And then there are those votes. We should probably be used to it by now. Members of Congress frequently decide to vote for a bad thing in order to achieve a good thing they believe is more important. Do they always make the right call? Of course not, but that’s not the same as being corrupt, weak-willed, or evil. What we can learn from these “complicated” votes is where a politician’s priorities lie when hard choices are required. What’s more important to them, people or principles, short term progress or long term goals? Which do we prefer?

The differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been remarkably consistent throughout the debates so far, across all of the big issues.

Sanders prefers to state and restate how things should be, how by rights they would be if not for the connivance of powerful elites. He and you know perfectly well what needs to be done. All it takes is enough collective will to overcome the forces that stand against us. Sanders is an outsider taking a bold moral stand.

Clinton wants to talk about how good things get done, how actual people’s lives can be improved … partially, incrementally, but also measurably. Ultimately she’s optimistic, but she wants you to know that progress is hard, and the opposition is diverse and can’t simply be overpowered by facts and rightness. Clinton is an insider who’s ready to fight to defend what we have and try to make it better.

Each approach has its place, but one without the other is probably futile. I’m a details guy, so I tend to prefer Clinton’s approach if not always her positions. What I’d really like to see is Bernie’s ideas and idealism fused with Hillary’s pragmatism and tactics.

What’s all this have to do with disabled people or disability policy? Do our experiences orient us more one way or the other? We have to ask, because once again, we heard nothing at all about disability in Wednesday’s debate.

As I have said before, we don’t need to be acknowledged or discussed in a debate to draw some conclusions, or at least ask some good questions, based on our disability experiences. A few thoughts:

When everything seems rigged and the issues you really care about never seem to be discussed, it’s natural to gravitate towards bold, principled ideas. When the economy never seems to work for us, even in the best times, why not push for something really different, a sharp break from “business as usual?”

But when push comes to shove, and your basic survival is on a knife’s edge, you also want some idea of what’s actually likely to happen … what the path to a better society would actually look like and entail.

As disabled people, we know better than almost anyone that awesome new ideas and innovative new systems end up not working quite right for us all the time. We have to temper our enthusiasm with caution. It’s an essential survival strategy when you have disabilities.

Above all, good intentions and sound ideas don’t automatically lead to good outcomes. Again, disabled people know this more intimately than most.

One more thing. This was a fairly targeted debate, emphasizing subjects of particular interest to Hispanic Americans, because it was co-hosted by the Spanish language network Univision. Part of me wanted to pout and say, “Why a special debate for them and not us?” But that’s not the issue. Instead, this more topical debate format could be a model to help bring disability issues to greater attention. Having a debate just on disability issues might be too narrow a focus, but what about a debate on something at least in our topical ballpark? How about a debate on poverty, employment, long term care and retirement, or education.

There are two more Democratic debates left, yet to be scheduled, and four more between the nominees in the fall. There’s still a chance to see these people engage publicly and meaningfully with disability issues. I wonder if it will happen?

Stray observations

One of the moderators asked both Clinton and Sanders whether they think Donald Trump is a racist. Is Trump a racist? My thoughts on this are influenced by my experiences with ableism; it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Trump, or any other candidate, is personally racist. What matters is what candidates say and do, just like it mainly matters if people say and do ableist things. Racist is as racist does, just like ableist is as ableist does.

I would have liked to hear Sanders apologize for his ableist language in the last debate, but I’ll accept it if he just stops doing it, as he seems to have done in this one.

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