No Time For Disability: The Ninth Republican Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

“Saturday night’s alright for fighting.” — Elton John

I can’t possibly be the the only person who heard that song playing in my head during Sunday night’s debate. And for what it’s worth, the impatience I expressed over the lack of disability content in Thursday Democratic debate is now officially bipartisan. In terms of disability, Saturday night’s Republican debate was a skimpy, over-cooked nothingburger.

It was hard to squeeze anything out of this debate that spoke to disabled voters … or for that matter anything that disabled voters could speak about with any additional authority and perspective.

Not even John Kasich mentioned disability policy, though he came close in his defense of Medicaid expansion in Ohio. He gave a fairly strong defense of Medicaid itself, describing it as part of a secure foundation which can enable poor and disadvantaged people to “rise up.” I don’t know if such arguments carry any weight in today’s Republican party, but anytime a politician defends Medicaid rather than treating it with distaste it’s a good thing for disabled people. But let’s be clear, he didn’t connect the topic to disabled people or disability policy, and it’s exactly this kind of connection we need.

Jeb Bush actually did have a moment, when he said it was “weak” for Trump to “disparage the disabled,” a reference to Trump’s apparent mockery of a reporter with Cerebral Palsy a couple of months ago. When he started listing people he says Trump has insulted, I waited to hear him mention disabled people, and he did … then moved right along with no elaboration. A few debates ago, that might have got me excited. This time, it seemed a bit feeble.

Don’t get me wrong. It was good to hear these two candidates, Kasich and Bush, make some small direct and indirect references to the concerns of disabled Americans. It’s just too bad that the two Republicans who will speak most decently about disabled people, even for a moment, are two of the least likely to be the nominee … unless of course we start seeing bigger surprises in the next few primaries. If Trump’s off-the-rails ranting last night finally hurts him, we could find ourselves watching a different race.

Regardless, it’s still unclear whether either Kasich or Bush really see disabled voters as a constituency worth pursuing. Kasich’s previous references to Medicaid and home care policies in Ohio seem more like one of a handful of personal accomplishment he can mention specifically, not conscious outreach to disabled voters. As for Bush, his defense, so to speak, of disabled people’s honor seems more like a convenient way to prove Trump’s tastelessness.

There’s certainly some value in being named and our issues being referenced in these debates. At this point though, there is little evidence that any of the candidates really take disabled voters or disability policy all that seriously.

Of course, one of the big problems last night was that the candidates spent so much time fighting each other over trivia and character attacks that they left no time at all to take any unexpected detours or flesh out unfamiliar issues or ideas. Disability policy? Innovative ideas? Forget it. No time … too much yelling to do.

Stray, completely random, off-topic observations

When asked how he plans to do all the amazing things he promises and reduce the deficit without touching entitlements, Donald Trump answered, “Waste, fraud, and abuse.” He then said something about people on Social Security who are 106 years old, which he says is impossible, so they must not really be alive. Presumably that’s what he means by waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s good to know Trump will crack down on all the dead cheaters masquerading as alive. That should be enough to fix the deficit. I guess we should be grateful he didn’t go after Social Security Disability instead.

Ted Cruz was asked what Republicans might do to fight poverty. A bit later, Marco Rubio volunteered an answer of his own. Both candidates cited various examples of different kinds of people in poverty, but neither mentioned disabled people, or our astronomically high rates of unemployment. It’s entirely possible to discuss poverty without mentioning disabled people. On the other hand, the topic is another easy opportunity for candidates to demonstrate something beyond superficial knowledge, and to touch base with the disability community. Again, they didn’t go for it. My guess is it never occurred to them.

In his closing statement, Ben Carson said, “It’s not the evil rich people, it’s the irresponsible government.” If you are fairly new to politics and you’re not sure what Republicans stand for, this is it … a succinct, direct summary of the Republican view of economics, government, and inequality. Add one more sentence about traditional values, and you’d have the party’s philosophy in a nutshell.