Interrupting Cow: The Vice-Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Interrupting cow…

The last thing I expected was for Tuesday’s Vice-Presidential debate, between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, to be more unruly than the first Presidential debate between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Yet, for at least the first half, it was. And I have to admit, Kaine started it.

I was astonished. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I support him and Hillary Clinton, but I was not a fan of Kaine’s interrupting cow routine. Among other things, it made Pence seem more calm and statesmanlike, even though I disagreed with most of what he said. He seemed like the levelest head in the room, until later in the debate when he seemed to say to heck with it, and got into the interrupting game himself. I guess it’s contagious.

For what it’s worth it also felt like both candidates disrespected the moderator, Elaine Quijano. She didn’t do a great job of keeping these guys under control, but it would have been hard for anyone that night, and with those two. In the end, it was a bad look for Kaine, and eventually for Pence, too. I find that I notice it a lot more than I used to when “old white dudes” talk over a woman who’s trying to say something or do a job. I have done it myself. On Tuesday, the candidates did it to each other, and they did it to the moderator. At least four times I found myself shouting at the TV, “Will you please shut UP?!”

This is all a matter of style though. Was there any substance for voters with disabilities to work with in this one scheduled face-off between the candidates for Vice-President? Let’s look at the scorecard:

Were there any questions about disability issues, or discussions of disability policy?

Basically, nope.

What did the candidates say about disability issues?

Pence was the only candidate to mention disabled people. The context was a discussion about abortion and “the sanctity of life.” He said:

“ … a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and that’s good!

First of all, on balance, it’s good that Pence thought to mention disabled people at all, and that he used the word “disabled,” and not some mealy-mouthed euphemism like “special needs,” or “differently abled.” Second, including “the disabled” was probably a intentional signal to people who oppose abortion, especially when it is chosen because a fetus will be born with disabilities. There are both pro-life and pro-life disabled people who have a problem with this, or at least worry about it. Third, some of the good of being included felt undone by the implication that disabled people, (and senior citizens), are inherently defenceless, unwell, and “vulnerable.”

Now, I think most disabled people would agree that we are, in some sense, “vulnerable.” But, our vulnerability comes from how we are treated in society, not necessarily from our disabilities themselves. That’s an important distinction that wasn’t fleshed out at all in the debate, either by Kaine or the moderator.

For his part, Kaine alluded to disability issues when he answered a question about whether police are expected to solve too many of our “social” problems. Kaine touted community policing, and spoke out against the “overly aggressive militarized model” of policing that so often leads to the tragic killing of people of color, and disabled people (often both). Then, he referred to Hillary Clinton’s mental health reform plan, which he said she worked with police to develop.

Pence agreed with the idea of community policing, but spent most of his response rejecting the whole notion of institutional racism and implicit bias. This may seem like a separate issue that doesn’t concern disabled people, but it’s directly related in two ways. One, many disabled people are also subjected to racism, and two, institutional racism and implicit bias are ways of looking at prejudice in an analytical, non-accusatory, less persona way, which is also an important way of understanding ableism. If we refuse to understand how prejudices are baked into the habits and institutions of society, then all we have left to work with is condemnation and guilt, and that won’t get us very far.

Finally, Kaine did not mention Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter in his list of insults Trump should apologize for. I’m not a fan of harping on that one incident. I would rather talk about substantive things like employment, long term care, and strengthening disability rights laws than about whether The Donald hurt our feelings.. However, Trump’s mockery and often casual disparagement of disabled people legitimately angers a lot of disabled people. It’s a fair issue, and it felt like an argument that Kaine kind of left unused on the table.

How did the candidates talk about disabled voters?

Once again, this question is about the language candidates use when they do refer to disabled people.

At one point, Kaine referred to people who might steal nuclear weapons as “maniacs.” That’s fair enough. He was quoting Ronald Reagan. But then he linked that idea to Trump himself. Kaine was availing himself of the popular but corrosive “Trump is crazy” line of argument. I get the temptation to talk about Donald Trump using the language and slurs of mental illness. It’s my official position, though, that using words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “mainiac” is a bad habit, and one that’s easily broken if people would just take it seriously.

Were there any parts of the debate that indirectly related to disability issues?

See above, re: the connections between policing and mental health, and between ableism and institutional racism.

What should we look for in the next debate?

So far, in this final round of debates, the only mentions of disability have come from the candidates themselves, and even then mostly accidentally, sort of backing into the topic. Despite the increased attention to disability issues in this campaign, none of the moderators have asked the candidates a direct question about their approaches to disability issues.

I strongly urge anyone interested, especially disabled people, to vote for disability-related questions at the Open Debate website: The top 30 vote-getting questions will be considered by ABC and CNN for the next debate, this Sunday. There are many good questions to promote. Go to the website, and type “disabled” into the search field. As has been pointed out before, it may be that the only way to get candidates to deal with disability is to ask them ourselves.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang