The Third, and Final, Presidential Debate

  • A
  • A
  • A

Andrew Pulrang

What happened was this. Late in the final Presidential debate last week, Hillary Clinton said the word, “divisiveness,” and I misheard, thinking she’d said “dismissiveness.” It was my mistake, but it changed the way I now view the biggest disability-related story of this entire campaign.

I’ll explain shortly. First, let’s look at the debate itself.

Now that they are over, let me just say that I hate watching Presidential debates. The problem is that I actually care who wins, so every moment I worry that “my” candidate will mess up, or that people will think the other candidate did well. In all three debates, I worried that Donald Trump would figure out a way to stay calm and polite while outlining standard Republican talking points … and that Clinton would either become even more dry and rehearsed, or else totally lose it with Trump. So, now that the final debate are behind us and none of these things happened, I’m glad it’s over. So glad. Air smells sweeter. Food tastes better.

As many journalists and pundits have already noted, Trump kept his cool for about the first half hour, but after that couldn’t help himself from pouncing on every perceived personal slight. He ended up randomly calling Hillary a “nasty woman.” Calling an intelligent, successful, ambitious woman “nasty” is a bit like calling a disabled person pitiful or bitter. It’s more than a personal insult. It’s a red flag for an entire group of people who have all been insulted exactly that way many times in our everyday lives.

Clinton never lost her temper, even then. But she wasn’t robotic either. She obviously enjoyed watching Trump flail, and while that’s not quite a noble emotion, it’s very human and relatable. Almost incidentally, Clinton again showed that, agree with her or not, she knows what she’s talking about.

What about disability though?

Yet again, there were no direct questions about disability issues. They got close though, by addressing two “mainstream” issues that have important connections to disability policy, and have special meaning for disabled voters:

  1. The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare) … Clinton said she’s going to improve it, fixing the parts that aren’t working well at the moment. Trump said it’s “a disaster” that he will fight to repeal completely. When asked what will happen then, Trump insisted it will be replaced by nationwide competition among health insurance companies. This sounds good if you think competition and free markets are magic. But what if companies find it’s more “competitive” to deny coverage to disabled people, as most of them did until the Obamacare made them stop it?
  1. “Debt and Entitlements” … Near the end of the debate, Moderator Chris Wallace asked what the candidates would do about the national debt and the cost of entitlements. “Entitlements,” of course, includes Social Security Disability, SSI, Medicaid, and Medicare … programs that are critical lifelines and financial foundations millions of disabled Americans build their lives on. The question itself implies that the only way to reduce debt is to reduce or restructure entitlements. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, neither Clinton nor Trump showed any real interest in cutting benefits. Clinton, in fact, said she would not cut Social Security, which is a strong and specific statement since in the recent past, doing exactly that has been treated like some kind of wise, bipartisan idea. Even Trump shied away from the topic, though, apparently resisting any temptation he might have had to complain about “waste and cheating” in disability benefits, by “fake” disabled people and their unscrupulous lawyers. I found it encouraging that neither candidate took Chris Wallace’s somewhat biased bait.

The most significant disability moment in the debate, for me at least, came late in the game. This is where my thinking on something changed, thanks to a comment from Hillary Clinton that I initially misheard. It had to do with:

The Great Disabled Reporter Mocking Incident!

One of Donald Trump’s first and most potent offensiveness controversies was when he mocked the voice and movements of a disabled New York Times reporter last fall, imitating him for laughs and ridicule in front of a revved-up crowd. That incident has since become the emotional rallying point for the disabled community’s opposition to Donald Trump.

The Clinton campaign, the Democratic platform, and the Democratic Convention in July all provided more substance on disability issues than we’ve seen before, but for better or worse, much of it was inspired by this one moment of unguarded ugliness.

I got tired of hearing about it pretty fast. It seemed like a more substantive discussion of disability policy was being overwhelmed by an empty incident … by a disagreeable man acting like a middle school bully. I am much more worried about the future of home care, reforming approaches to disability employment, accelerating community accessibility, and protecting disabled people from the harm of mishandled policing, than I am about my feelings being hurt.

Then, in that final debate, Hillary Clinton again brought up Trump’s mockery, as he had dozens of times before. This time, instead of head-shaking and tisk-tisking about it, she more seriously pointed out that it was part of “a pattern of divisiveness,” that characterizes both Trump as a man and his political program.

I misheard the word, “divisiveness” as “dismissiveness,” but either way, it sort of blew my mind.

See, that’s the problem with Trump’s mockery … not that it hurts disabled people’s feelings, but that it suggests that Trump is dismissive of us as disabled people, as he is dismissive of anyone who looks, acts, or sounds, or speaks differently from his narrow conception of “normal American.” Trump probably agrees that it’s not nice to make fun of disabled people, but the bottom line is that we just don’t matter enough for him to care … especially when he’s got anger to vent, and a crowd to rile up.

I misheard Hillary’s exact wording, but the thought remains. And “divisiveness” works, too. Hearing the incident interpreted this way changed my thinking about it. It gave this viral meme a new meaning to me. It also convinced me that Hillary Clinton might be more than a political opportunist on disability issues. She is that, but she also understands at least a little of what disability and ableism are really about, deeper down. It really is about more than our feelings. It’s about our material well-being, and our humanity. After last week’s debate, I think Hillary gets it.

So, what now?

It’s fairly clear what the candidates stand for, both in personality and policies. We can wish we knew more about how they would deal with the specifics of disability issues, but we know at least a little more than we have about candidates in previous years.

Before Election Day, I’ll have a few more notes and stray observations, before we all go and cast our votes.