The First Presidential Candidates Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

After about ten months of campaigning, the final stage is finally underway. The Democratic and Republican nominees have debated head-to-head. Was it a wild affair or pretty normal? Was it hot air or substance. Were Clinton and Trumps answers and demeanors revealing or just baffling.

I hope it’s not too much of a cop-out to say that it depends on your perspective. My short take is that:

  1. It was unruly, but not as different from the usual Presidential debate as it seemed while watching,
  2. The candidates revealed a lot about what kind of people they are under pressure, but not much about what they want to do as President, and
  3. The debate only dealt with about 4 or 5 issues, either very general, nonspecific issues, or “hot button” issues that are in the news right now.

This suggests that we may never hear Trump and Clinton address a detailed disability issue on the debate stage. It’s possible our issues are perceived as too specialized, not compelling enough for a mass audience, and not urgent enough in this moment in history.

On the other hand, maybe the other debates will be structured differently, allowing some more niche issues to get a hearing. Also, as we saw in the primary debates, just because disability isn’t an explicit topic, doesn’t mean there aren’t any clues about it to be found in debate performances.

Let’s keep this simple. Going forward, I will use a standard structure to assess disability content in the debates … answering five questions:

  1. Were there any questions about disability issues, or details offered about disability policy?
  2. What did the candidates say on their own about disability issues?
  3. How did the candidates talk about disabled voters?
  4. Were there any parts of the debate that indirectly related to disability issues?
  5. What should we look for in the next debate?

So, how did Tuesday night’s Presidential Debate stack up?

Were there any questions about disability issues, or details offered about disability policy?

No. Neither the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, nor either of the candidates directly raised a disability issue..

What did the candidates say on their own about disability issues?

Not much.

Hillary Clinton made a single vague reference to some kind of connection between mental illness and policing, but that  just barely qualifies. Also, this is an area of disability policy you really don’t want bought up and then not explained in detail. There’s too much room for bad things to happen under the benign heading of “mental health.”

One problem is that there were no real opening or closing statements in this debate. The set opening and closing statements are the usual places to cite groups of voters who are struggling for equal rights and a better life … and candidates will sometimes mention people with disabilities here. With those sections basically eliminated, and no questions asked about disability, it’s much harder to even say where Clinton or Trump might have brought up disability issues or disabled voters.

How did the candidates talk about disabled voters?

What I have in mind with this question is something different from policy content. I am thinking more of the feel of how candidates talk about disabled people. Do the candidates address disabled people directly … as “you,” or indirectly, as “they?” Do they talk about disabled people as voters, or as loved ones of non-disabled voters? Are disabled people parts of a political constituency? Are they spoken of as victims? Are they viewed as funny, ridiculous, pathetic, or scary?

As already noted, there wasn’t much to judge in the first debate. However …

Clinton characterized Trump’s ideas as “crazy.” Now, there may only be about 5% of Americans who even notice the implied stigma when “crazy” or “insane” are used as insults, but it’s a bad habit, it’s probably going to become a politically worse habit in the near future, and it’s easy to correct. So it’s worth noting.

Then Trump described a hypothetical internet hacker as a “400 pound” guy sitting in his bedroom, and this kind of flippant fat-shaming is a very close cousin to other kinds of ableism. In addition to being just bizarre in this example, dismissing people because of their appearance is more than just a breach of etiquette. It suggests a broadly dismissive attitude in which judging physical appearance is an easy substitute to judging character and actions.

And then there’s “stamina.” “Stamina.” “STAMINA!” Donald Trump repeated it several times, with feeling, to sum up his apparent concern that Hillary Clinton is not well enough to be President. Again, acute illness isn’t the same as disability, but it’s right next door to it, and actual stamina is an actual issue for many, if not most disabled people. Sometimes lack of stamina is a real barrier for us … something we have to plan for and navigate. But more often it’s a problem other people assume we must have. In those cases it’s a discriminatory barrier, not a practical one.

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

I might be spinning meaningful ideas out of thin air, but I noticed two moments not about disability at all, that got me thinking about it anyway:

  1. Just before the debate, commentator Chuck Todd described Trump’s vision as “let’s slow down” or go back on social change. How is that supposed to sound to disabled people? As hard as things are, I think most of us would agree that we have mostly benefitted from social change, and that the “good old days” were pretty rotten for disabled people.
  1. Donald Trump spoke out strongly against “regulations” on businesses. To hear him tell it, businesses hate regulations even more than they hate taxes! Might he mean regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example?

What should we look for in the next debate?

The next scheduled debate is the Vice-Presidential Debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence. I don’t know if that makes discussion or mention of disability issues more likely or less.

There is this. Both Pence and Kaine have been state governors. If anything, governors have their hands on more disability policy issues and decisions than even elected Presidents. So, maybe there’s more of an opening for real disability debate than we might think.

Tune in again October 4, 2016 at 9:00 PM Eastern. We haven’t seen much of these guys so far, so it might be interesting … or at least a little less stressful.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang