Moderators Please! Ask A Disability Question!: 11th Republican Debate

  • A
  • A
  • A

Andrew Pulrang

Well, that was … something. I’m not sure it was a debate, but it was certainly something.

Kasich had his best night yet on Thursday in Detroit, but rather wimped out at the end. Rubio was kind of funny and tried real hard to bully Trump rather than the other way ‘round. And Cruz showed that his sense of humor tends towards ironic condescension … effective in small doses, but not an attractive quality. As for Trump, on the substance he was badly beaten, but it won’t make much difference, maybe none at all. He seems to be immune to the usual standards by which candidates are judged.

We heard very little about disability … again … though in a way we heard more of it than we might have expected given the heightened circumstances. Disabled people were mentioned twice, at the very beginning and the very end.

Rubio was first, noting in his opening statement that Trump has mocked “the disabled,” among many other groups. By the way, I’m fine with that terminology. However, I worry that we are headed into a phase where disabled people will be mentioned, but only as a faceless mass of weak people who need our honor defended from that mean old Mr. Trump. Thanks, for real, Sen. Rubio, but what else do you have to say about people with disabilities and disability policy?

At the far other end of the debate, Kasich mentioned “the mentally ill” and “the developmentally disabled,” as people who he says weren’t “left behind” by his efforts in Ohio. Gov. Kasich has referred to disabled people and disability policy this way more than anyone in the debates, of both parties, but always in kind of a hurry, without detail.

Before the third or fourth commercial break … I lost track … Chris Wallace said they were going to address “the social issues” facing our country. I wondered for a moment if that meant we might get an honest to goodness disability question. Isn’t disability policy sort of a “social issue?”

Nope. I guess not.

“Kind of in a hurry” and “without detail” pretty much describes how disability has been dealt with so far in the Presidential debates. It’s easy to blame the candidates, and they are at least partially responsible for making disability an afterthought … or a no thought … throughout the cycle. I don’t think it’s all the candidates’ fault though, and we should be clear among ourselves and with the political class exactly why this even matters.

The problem isn’t that we are being snubbed, that our feelings are hurt. We get left out of things a lot as a disabled people, and yes, it stings, and fuels a pointless, poisonous cynicism that really only hurts ourselves and our community. But that’s not the biggest problem. The  real problem is we as disabled voters still don’t have any useful information yet on what these candidates might do with disability policy. That matters, for the 15-18 million of us who could potentially vote this year. Since that’s a lot of votes no matter which way you slice it, it should matter to every one of these candidates.

We aren’t helpless. Disability policy isn’t the only basis for disabled voters to make a decision. We simply want enough information these candidates views on disability policy to include in our decision of who to vote for. Then why don’t the candidates or the moderators bring disability up, more than just drive-by mentions of the word?

After the last Republican debate, I said I thought it was partly because the Republicans seem to think the country is literally … not figuratively … headed to disaster. If an apocalypse is near, then maybe disability policy really isn’t a priority. But I think there’s also a structural problem that has so far shortchanged a bunch of important constituencies and topics, disability included.

Domestic policy discussions in these debates have been thin and generic because none of the candidates say anything interesting or specific enough to get the other candidates to argue with them. Notice that when they answer questions about second and third-tier issues … like education, poverty, or drugs … the candidates mostly give tepid, predictable answers and are careful not to refer to their opponents by name. If you mention another guy’s name, he gets time to respond. If you don’t he doesn’t. Sticking to short, flat statements on the non-hot-button issues means there’s no chance for the other candidates to rebut or present different, competing policies. So there’s less time spent on these topics overall, and no exchange of ideas.

Gov. Kasich can mention home care in three or four debates in a row, but the debate format doesn’t prompt the other candidates to say what they think about long term care, community integration, or nursing homes … or present a different approach. Sen. Rubio can list us among the sad victims of Trumpism, but we have no real idea what he would do with federal hiring of disabled workers, or with Social Security Disability. All we can do is guess.

We get a taste, if we’re lucky, but no meal.

What we really need is for the candidates to argue with each other over disability policy half as intensely as they argue over each other’s tone, who supported what and when, and exactly how big a liar they are. If debate moderators want to spice things up and add some policy substance to these things, they should try asking some unfamiliar, unscripted questions, like questions about disability.

For example:

  1. Should all law enforcement personnel go through mandatory training on interacting with disabled people?
  2. Should Congress outlaw paying some disabled workers less than minimum wage?
  3. Should home care funds be made available to pay family members as home care / personal assistance providers?

What’s the likelihood that any of the candidates of either party has a detailed argument, or even a thought-out position on these questions. They might have to think on their feet. They might have to use their broad political and social philosophies to craft a provisional answer these specific issues. We might get to hear some important disability issues discussed. And the rest of the audience might have a chance to see how the candidates do when faced with questions that don’t have obvious, poll-tested answers.

That would be worth something for everyone.

Stray observations

Chris Wallace asked Trump about “waste, fraud, and abuse,” one of his favorite answers for how he would cut taxes by trillions and still balance the budget. I only mention this because sooner or later, Trump is going to recycle a Rand Paul talking point and say he’ll go after all the fakers an weaklings on Disability. Anyone want to bet me he won’t do it before November 8?

Gov. Kasich struggled to thread the needle on “religious liberty,” which apparently refers to the “liberty” of businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. Sorry Gov. Kasich. If we follow your logic on this one, then a business owner might decide he or she “just doesn’t like” disabled customers, and if that happens, we’re not going to be reasonable about it and just go somewhere else. When it comes to discrimination, everyone’s got a “good reason,” and they’re always bad.