I Guess We’re On Our Own: 10th Republican Presidential Debate

  • A
  • A
  • A

Andrew Pulrang

I think I’ve figured out why we hear little to nothing about disability policy in the Republican debates.

[Don’t worry, I’ve got a parallel theory about the absence of disability in the Democratic debates, too. But Thursday’s debate was with the remaining 5 Republicans, so let’s stick with them for the moment.]

One problem the Republican candidates have in talking about disability policy in a time-limited debate is that most of them seem to really believe the country is heading for catastrophe. I don’t know what their imagined apocalypse looks like. Is it more like post-Skynet “Terminator 2,” “The Postman,” or “Mad Max?” Whichever it is, if you really, truly think the country is going to Hell in a pushcart, then it really would be silly to talk about how Americans with disabilities might achieve equal opportunity and a share of the American Dream.

The only optimism on display at Thursday night’s debate was in the form of simple overconfidence. Each candidate offered himself as the only way to prevent his particular vision of gruesome American decline. Even John Kasich, who is by far the most upbeat of the bunch, now offers himself as a last-ditch antidote to disaster … said disaster being any of the other boastful, screaming children on the debate stage with him.

How do you discuss the finer points of disability policy when America is, apparently, under immediate existential threat? If Obamacare is going to kill all the jobs, does it matter whether disabled people get a fair crack at them? If we’re all going to be under Sharia law, do we care if two disabled people on Social Security will lose benefits if they marry?

On the other hand, a meaty, challenging, somewhat obscure and unfamiliar disability question it might be just the thing to calm these guys down and get an off the rails debate back under some kind of control. Ask them something really specific, like how they would reduce the massive unemployment of disabled people, or is it fair to pay some disabled workers less than minimum wage, or how do we provide long term care to elderly and disabled people without confining them to nursing homes and institutions?

Get these candidates off their simplified talking points, or, at the very least, force them to show how their talking points relate to real problems that real people experience. If nothing else, disability issues are as real life as it gets.

But it’s the debate moderators who ask the questions, not the candidates. We need to convince the hosting networks to ask disability policy questions at some point before the Primary debate cycle is over, and then again during the General Election debates. Most of the debate hosts have used Twitter, Facebook, or their own feedback forms to invite viewers to submit questions. If each of us submits at least one well-crafted disability policy question before each debate, we might just get noticed, and a real, substantive disability question might just be asked.

In the meantime, don’t<em> just</em> listen for disability questions from the moderators, or for candidates to mention disabled people on their own. All that’s going to do is make you angrier. Listen to <em>everything</em>, and make your own experience as a disabled person part of how you evaluate the candidates’ philosophies, policies, and personalities. Don’t just ask what they will do for you if elected … <em>or what they will do to you</em>. Instead, ask yourself what your specific disability experiences tell you about what you are seeing and hearing.

For example:

What does your experience with disability-related programs suggest about how to design and run effective programs that reduce poverty and open up opportunity for all people?

Is a booming economy enough by itself to reduce the high rate of unemployment for disabled people? Or, are more targeted efforts necessary?

What is the difference between an aggressive fighter (in a good way), and an obnoxious or frightening bully?

We need to hear more about disability policy from all the Presidential candidates, but we don’t need to hear in order to learn something from watching these debates. We can draw our own conclusions, with or without help from the moderators or the candidates.

Stray observations

The one thing Trump likes about Obamacare is coverage of pre-existing conditions, also known as disabilities.

Kasich touts “total transparency” in billing as a key component of his health care plan. It seems like more of a popular cause than a truly important aspect of what drives health care costs and affordability. Hard to understand medical bills piss us off, but are they really responsible for the high cost of medical care?

Carson says, “First of all, health care is not a right, but it is a responsibility of responsible society.” It’s an interesting philosophical distinction. Is it an important distinction or not?

Trump answer once again to a question about the national debt and entitlements was “waste, fraud, and abuse,” plus ship a whole bunch of federal programs back to the states. Two questions then: Is there really enough waste, fraud, and abuse to soak up all of the deficit? And how will states pay for these programs they will now be entirely responsible for, including Medicaid?

We found a new benefit to closed captioning, beyond making debates accessible to Deaf and hearing impaired people … a bit of possibly unintentional commentary. During the most chaotic moment, one of several when all the candidates shouted at each other at once, the captioner apparently gave up and typed, “[unintelligible yelling].”

Funny, but only partly true. If you listen and use your head, you can learn useful things from any debate. It’s just that what you learn may be more depressing than enlightening.