Undecided: 9th Democratic Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

Tweet by Alex Burns, NYT — “Theatrical stuff aside, @CNN debate is an excellent distillation of the most important differences between the candidates.”

By the end, I was doubting even that. Watching this debate was unpleasant. Clinton and Sanders have clashed and gotten personal before, but not like this. As Paul Begala of CNN said afterwards, these two candidates are clearly “done with each other.”

Ultimately though, I still think the debate laid out, again, how these two candidates represent related, but vastly different policies, approaches and views of how the world works. And this can be useful for those of us still trying to decide who to vote for.

Let’s start with the two, (count ‘em, TWO!), times the candidates mentioned disability in the 2 hour debate:

  1. Bernie Sanders mentioned protecting and increasing Social Security, for retirees and “disabled vets.” That sounds great, but why does Sanders only mention disabled veterans? Are they the only disabled people worth mentioning? Is it one of his longshot pitches to conservative voters? Or, is it an unconscious habit from having worked a lot on veterans issues in the Senate? Whatever the answer, it’s more strange than objectionable.
  2. In her closing statement Hillary Clinton listed “disability barriers” among the other barriers Americans face besides economic ones. This was a bit more than a typical disability shout-out. Her larger point was that Sanders seems to pin the blame for all problems on economics, while she recognizes that factors like race, homophobia, sexism, and yes, ableism affect people too, in some ways separate from and regardless of wealth.

The way Clinton mentioned disability points to one of the most noticeable differences between her and Sanders.

Analogy alert!

In effect, Sanders says that there’s one big dragon plaguing our village … big money. Slay the dragon, save the village. It’s really that simple. Difficult, but not complicated.

Clinton, on the other hand, argues that there are actually dozens of dragons to slay. Some of them are even small enough to wound or dispatch fairly easily, without unduly inconveniencing the villagers. And the important thing is that she knows better than anyone which dragons to slay, which to capture and restrain, and which ones to negotiate with.

End of shaky dragon analogy.

There are other differences.

Sanders’ strong suit is universality. His program ideas are for everyone, which seems fairer and gets everyone invested in making them work. This can be especially attractive to disabled people, who constantly have to worry about establishing and maintaining eligibility for things. Clinton’s policies tend to be limited and targeted, but also maybe more finely crafted to fit the specialized needs of distinct groups of voters, like disabled people.

In debates, Sanders always pivots back to a few core principles, and speaks of the way things should be. Clinton prefers policy details, and seems most at home touting her personal role in past accomplishments and reforms.

Clinton represents … or is being backed into representing … a more conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which at one time was cutting edge and victorious, but now feels increasingly dusty and tainted. Back in the ‘90s, co-opting a few selected conservative positions seemed like a smart way to advance liberalism. Now it seems to many liberals pathetic at best, at worst, corrupt.

Despite his age and championing ideas the left has espoused since the 1930s and 40s. Sanders represents a new generation of Democrats with no interest in worrying over past failures and obsessions. As a bonus, Sanders also seems to represent a cohort of older liberals who feel like finally, FINALLY they have a viable candidate to advance policies … like single-payer healthcare … that have been obvious to them for decades.

Above all, Clinton is about small but achievable victories, while Sanders is about the Hail Mary pass that could fail spectacularly, or maybe, finally, make this the country we “know” it should be.

Which is our best bet, as Americans, and as Americans with disabilities? Is it a uniform system that in principle puts us on a level playing field but may not mesh well with our unique needs? Or, do we work with politicians to craft smaller-scale, fine-tuned solutions that don’t fix everything, but make our lives a little bit better?

If Sanders’ bold, uncompromising, principled approach were coming from someone steeped in disability policy … someone, say, like former Senator Tom Harkin … then the choice would be easy. But Sanders obviously hasn’t spent much time sweating the details of how government programs serve and sometimes mis-serve disabled people. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but he needs to recognize that disabled people are square pegs that may not fit so easily into his perfectly round holes.

I’m confident that Clinton will sit down with the disability community and try to work out crafted policies to meet our specific needs. Where she could fail or fall short is in keeping her eye on the core principles that should always drive these efforts. “Describing the problem is a lot easier than solving it,” said Clinton on Thursday night, and as disabled people, we know she’s right about that. But describing and fully understanding the problem is important, too. It may even be a prerequisite. This is definitely true with disability issues.

For what it’s worth, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have endorsed two important disability positions on employment and long term community care: banning the 14(c) subminimum wage, and passing the Disability Integration Act. Notably, both had to be pushed to do this by disability activists. But that’s also a good sign that both candidates would be open and responsive when the disability community comes calling with things we want them to do.

I’m not used to undecided at this point in an election year. The only thing I am absolutely sure of is that come Tuesday, I will vote for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the New York Primary. It’s not been the most uplifting campaign to watch, but it’s provided more than enough insight to finally make a decision.

I’ll let you know when that happens.