The Full Plate and The Missing Topic

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Andrew Pulrang

The Full Plate and The Missing Topic

The Presidential candidates’ plates must be full, because it looks like disability issues have fallen off onto the kitchen floor, along with a few stray peas and a blob of gravy.

It’s a shame, too. The candidates at the December 19 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, spoke pretty well for themselves. Personal politics aide, there wasn’t a truly weak, superficial, or inadequate candidate on the stage. All three candidates, even Martin O’Malley, who can’t seem to break into the double digits in polling, gave serious, sometimes passionate, if not always convincing answers to a wide range of questions on terrorism and national security, economic policy, and domestic policy and social justice.

Based on their handling these issues, it might have been truly exciting and instructive if the moderators had asked a substantive question about disability policy. They didn’t. Our loss, once again. And yet, as with past Democratic and Republican debates, disability themes and ideas were just barely visible, if you looked carefully and dug down below the surface a bit.

The debate kicked off with what the moderators probably hoped would become a knife fight between Sanders and Clinton about the voter database controversy. Sander apologized, Clinton more or less let it go at that, and O’Malley mildly chided the moderators for introducing such trivia. Whether by agreement beforehand or just the temperament of these candidates, they basically did away with the most prominent non-substantive news item of the last 24 hours, and made it clear they were there to talk about issues that voters care about.

The first third of the debate was about terrorism and national security. All three candidates propose to destroy ISIL, in collaboration with a coalition of other Muslim countries in the Middle East. They each proposed some form of cooperation with American Muslim community to spot and prevent terrorism at home. They didn’t try to compete for who would be “tougher”. Rather, the main difference between the candidates was about focus. Clinton seemed confident that we can handle several military and diplomatic priorities at once, while Sanders and O’Malley went out of their way to say we need to put other priorities aside and focus on ISIL exclusively. The debate on this subject was at times intense, but not hateful or personal. There are legitimate differences of opinion, and the answers are far from obvious. And none of the candidates tried to suggest anything different.

Once again though, just as in the last Republican debate, there was no real examination of the actual risks of terrorism and global conflict, though the Democrats made a stronger case that some values are too valuable to trade, even for safety. As I said in my review of the last Republican debate, these discussions make me think about how we discuss and manage risks and freedoms in the disability community. It’s one of those areas where the experience of disability may provide uniquely valuable insights on something totally unrelated.

Unlike the Republican debate earlier in the week, this debate moved on from terrorism to discuss other topics, including economic policies, domestic policies, and social justice.

At the risk of oversimplifying: Clinton and O’Malley want to readjust the economy in various ways to be fairer for working people and more productive overall. Sanders believes the economy is “rigged,” that it’s inherently and deliberately unfair, and therefore needs major restructuring. Although their policy ideas aren’t miles apart, it’s easy to see that the main fault line is between Sander view that our economic problems are deliberately constructed and need to be deliberately undone, and Clinton’s view that the system itself is pretty much okay and just needs some rebalancing and troubleshooting.

Despite these differences, all three candidates’ proposals rely a lot on taxing the rich, which is starting to sound like the Democrats’ version of an all-purpose magic formula, like the Republicans’ deregulation and huge tax cuts. A few of the moderator’s questions pressed on this point, and Clinton, especially grilled Sanders about whether he can really pay for all free health care and tuition-free college simply by taxing the highest incomes and business transactions. On the other hand, Clinton, herself, struggled a bit to address how she can promise to do all that she wants while promising never to raise taxes for the middle class. Again, like with the Republicans’ enormous tax cuts, the math may be sketchy at best.

Here I think it must be said that it’s hard to deny the appeal to disabled people of Sanders’ kind of simpler, more complete support programs for building block services like healthcare and college, without eligibility rules, without fees and hidden costs, without the risk of losing support if we have a setback or a big success. At the same time, it’s also hard to imagine that kind of program really being passed in the current political climate. And, as we in the disability community know better than most, quality and details of implementation matter, too. It’s not enough just to promise a lot of stuff. It matters how it’s delivered.

The final third of the debate focused on domestic and social justice issues. This is where disability issues should have been raised. As it was, you could make some general guesses at how the candidates might view disability, in how they talked about racial justice and drug addiction. Both Clinton and Sanders referred specifically to “institutional racism,” suggesting that they know the difference between calling people racists and dealing with the racism baked into our customs, habits, and social structures. This is an important distinction in disability as well.

At any rate, talk from all three about police conduct, racism, drug addiction, and other social justice issues was sober, responsible, and aware, if somewhat lacking in specifics.

The most surprising and disquieting moment was when all three candidates agreed that a key to the heroin crisis was forcing doctors to cut down on prescribing opiates. I accept, for the moment, that prescription opiates contribute to serious drug problems, but I also know that a significant number of disabled people legitimately rely on properly prescribed opiates to control chronic pain. Crackdowns on doctors have already forced disabled people through more bureaucratic ringers, and imposed sometimes vicious new stigmas. This is a truly difficult question of policy, with real lives at stake. At some point, it seems like it will be critical for people with disabilities to have our say in the matter, if not on a debate stage, then on advisory committees and in hearing rooms.

So far, though, disability rights and the disability community seem to have been dropped this year from the roster of constituencies and civil rights concerns that Presidential candidates mention when they talk who will be included in the American dream. While I never expect disability to be a dominant issue or concern, at this point, I think the neglect qualifies as a real problem. My memory isn’t perfect, but I seem to recall disability being at least mentioned a lot more often, as a matter of course and completeness, back in 2008 and in 2012.

There was enough time in this debate for an aggressive, targeted, run at Clinton on Libya. There was time for a fun but slight question about first spouses … which to be fair, I thought brought out some surprisingly good and moving answers. But there was no time for disability. Of course, other important matters were left off the agenda, too, including K-12 education and climate change. At least O’Malley on his own brought up clean energy and global warming.

That’s how an individual candidates might have shoehorned in a much needed comment on disabled people and disability policy, in this or any of the other debates so far. None of the candidates of either party has taken the initiative yet.

This was a good debate, with valuable information, insights for all voters, and a minimum of posturing and one-upsmanship.

From a disability perspective, it was another disappointment, and maybe a final call for action. It’s time to stop waiting and put disability somewhere on the agenda in 2016, hopefully well before we have to cast our votes. I’m not sure how we can do it, but we’re running out of time to waste.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang