The Eighth Republican Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

“We need to help the drug addicted, the working poor and the developmentally disabled” — John Kasich

With our desire to hear disability issues discussed in Presidential debates so high, and our expectations for actually hearing them so low, it’s easy to get over-excited at the smallest mention of disability. I think that’s why I feel so weirdly invested in the candidacy of John Kasich right now.

I am a Democrat, and my whole value system and point of view on things pretty much prevent me from feeling good about any of the Republican candidates. Even so, I can tell there are important differences between the Republican candidates. While I can’t imagine most of them being President, there are one or two I can see in the White House, one of whom is most definitely John Kasich.

I felt that way from the first time I saw him in a debate, and noticed that unlike just about all the other candidates, he’s not hostile, and he doesn’t seem to think the country is going to the dogs. But what really made me take notice is that he is the only candidate of either party to mention disability in debates. Saturday’s night’s Eighth Republican Presidential debate was the third debate in a row where Kasich mentioned disabled people and / or disability issues.

In the Sixth debate, former Governor Kasich cited Medicaid reform efforts in Ohio that he says made it possible for “Mom and Dad” to live in their own homes instead of a nursing home. He presented this more as an aging issue, but he was talking about one of the key issues in disability activism … an issue absolutely central to CDR’s mission and ADAPT’s as well. In the Seventh debate, he mentioned this issue again, this time in his closing statement.

On Saturday, Kasich brought up two disability issues …. the nursing home / home care issue again, and also increasing employment through an approach he termed “Work First.” Plus, he mentioned people with developmental disabilities as a group of people who aspire to “rise” in the American economy.

One mention of a disability policy is notable. Including disabled people in a rhetorical list of disadvantaged citizen groups should be standard procedure, and is just barely deserving of faint praise. But incorporating disability policy and disabled people into your regular pitch, over three consecutive debates, says something.

What does it say? What is Kasich actually doing? Is this truly significant for the disability community?

First of all, it seems like one reason Kasich brings up his Medicaid reforms in Ohio is that it is part of his record as governor, and something that he seems to be proud of. His rather long shot bid for the nomination leans heavily on having been an effective governor who has made real progress on difficult issues, and this is one real-life example he can use to make that case.

Second, one of Kasich’s messages is that social and economic problems are often complex and specialized, and can’t be solved with combative rhetoric and free market faith alone. This distinguishes him from the other candidates, who seem to think that promising loudly, or simplistically, to “fix” a problem is as good as actually doing it.

Third, Kasich likes to emphasize that his accomplishments have been the result of his leadership, but also collaboration. This is another contrast with his opponents, who often seem to forget that a President has to deal with other branches of government, not to mention at least one opposition party.

In a sense, Kasich citing disability policy isn’t really about disability policy itself. It happens to be part of his record he can use to contrast himself with his rivals. It may or may not say much about what kind of President Kasich would be, or how his Presidency might affect the disability community.

In another sense, though, Kasich including disability issues in his main debate pitch three times in a row could be very important for the broader status of disability in American politics, or at least in this election. It may introduce important but unfamiliar disability policy issues to a general audience. Even if people hear these issues mentioned and wonder what the heck he’s talking about, if it inspires a few people to ask and do some research, that’s progress all by itself. Including disability could also suggest to other candidates that disabled voters and disability policy belong in the center of their campaigns, not just relegated to tiny subsections of campaign websites.

Of course, it all could go another way.

As I write this, New Hampshire voters are going to the polls. Unless something unexpected occurs, Kasich won’t get enough votes to survive much longer in the campaign. If he has to drop out tomorrow, or in a few weeks, what will that say about the value of raising disability issues in televised debates?

Probably not much, but it would be a blow to an idea that many of us in the disability community have speculated about and cherished for a long time … that disability issues could actually be game-changers for political candidates. Long term care, especially is often viewed in our community as a sort of sleeper issue just waiting for an informed candidate to take up and ride to popular success. It’s not just “disabled people” who care about long term care; it’s also older people and adult children of aging parents whose lives are deeply affected by how long term care is doled out and delivered. Few people of any age want to live in a nursing home, and few people want their loved ones forced to live in one either. It’s an issue that should have broad, bipartisan appeal.

Yet, the issue hasn’t caught fire yet. Kasich seems to be giving it a pretty decent shot. But his bid for the nomination fails, will others conclude that disability issues failed him?

Stray observations:

Ted Cruz cited medically vulnerable people as likely “victims” of “socialized medicine.” This is an idea that may have some resonance for people with disabilities, whose medical needs often don’t fit the cost containment mechanisms necessary to run universal healthcare plans affordably.

Ben Carson wants to use “Health Empowerment Accounts,” which sounds like set amount of money for health care, individually allocated at birth and meant to last for a lifetime. He was a bit vague about where the money would come from and how much each person would get, but the idea seems to share some components of consumer control models used by some developmentally disabled people to pay for services.

Chris Christie’s response to a question on heroin overdoses was sensible and humane.

Carson mentioned the high rate of suicide among veterans, a genuinely serious problem that certainly overlaps with other disability issues.

Nobody fear-mongered the Zika virus. I expected someone to speak in horrified tones about babies with “birth defects,” but nobody did. I guess that counts as some sort of a win for decency towards disabled people.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang