Don’t mention the wheelchair

Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, released a commercial last weekend reminding voters that her opponent is confined to a wheelchair.

This was enough for the Washington Post to run a headline calling it “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” Politico’s Kendall Breitman writes that the ad “has sparked a storm of criticism for referencing [Greg] Abbott’s disability,” and the Abbott campaign itself calls it “desperate and despicable.”

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The commercial (embedded in the Politico story) begins with an image of an empty wheelchair in shadowy, sinister black-and-white. (Someday all attack ads will use take advantage of high-definition color TV to show every pore and blackhead on an opponent’s face.) It switches to white text on a black screen to highlight parts of the narration:

“A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims. Abbott argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb. He ruled against a rape victim who sued a corporation for failing to do a background check on a sexual predator. He sided with a hospital that failed to stop a dangerous surgeon who paralyzed patients. Greg Abbott: He’s not for you.

The Politico and Washington Post stories, along with recent reports on Fox News, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor, focused on the questions of whether the ad is offensive, and whether the charge of hypocrisy will help Davis, a state senator, catch up to Abbott, the state’s attorney general, in the closing days of the campaign. The consensus on the latter question is no. Or hell no: The Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “If it does backfire and Davis wants to run for office in the future, you can rest assured this one will stick with her.”

These stories do not contain any information on the veracity of Davis’s claims or put them in any kind of context. (How did the hospital “fail to stop” the bad surgeon?) Coverage of the Davis commercial has been almost entirely negative, but it also has been repeating the script for the ad pretty much without comment. Once again, it seems, the image is what counts.

American political coverage works on the principle that calling someone a liar is worse than telling a lie. The first is nasty and uncivil, the second is just giving one side of a debate in which there is never a correct answer. Similarly, tastelessness is always going to draw more criticism than hypocrisy.

Variants on Davis’s charge against Abbott pop up regularly. The National Journal’s Matthew Cooper has written about the phenomenon of anti-government politicians who demand more spending for programs that affect them personally (such as Chris Christie wanting immediate federal aid to rebuild the boardwalks of his beloved Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy, or an anti-regulation legislator pushing for lower speed limits after losing a loved one in an accident). Perhaps the most common counterpart on the other side of the ideological spectrum are elected officials who defend the public school system but send their children to private institutions. But the hypocrisy charge rarely seems to work, partly because making any reference to an opponent’s personal life is seen as desperate.

Even left-leaning publications are squeamish about the Wendy Davis commercial. New York magazine’s Caroline Bankoff wrote, “Abbott’s actions were indeed hypocritical, but the wheelchair image has already distracted viewers from that message by leaving Davis open to charges of criticizing someone based on a physical disability.” Does this mean Bankoff would be OK with the same script as a radio ad?

Mother Jones’s Ben Dreyfuss wrote, “This ad says to me — and to a lot of other people — that Greg Abbott is unfit to serve because he is handicapped. The Davis campaign may not have intentionally attempted to play into people’s historic prejudice against the disabled, but that’s how the ad reads to me.” This interpretation seems to rule out the use of any photo or video of Abbott in a wheelchair, even though Abbott himself talks about his disability and has released a commercial in which he talks about transportation policy while rolling past a traffic jam. (“Some politicians talk about having a spine of steel. I actually have one,” Abbott said in his campaign announcement.)

The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman is the rare pundit who generally defends the ad, saying, “it may be less problematic than many people are making it out to be.” He argues, “People’s access to the courts is a serious public policy issue, nowhere more so than in Texas, where Republicans have been particularly aggressive in shutting the courthouse doors to those without power.” Waldman also points to what may more objectionable than the wheelchair image, which is the line “He sued and got millions.” It “implies that Abbott made out like a bandit on his accident,” Waldman writes, which complicates the message that the other people mentioned in the ad were denied rightful compensation.

Polls indicate that Davis is likely to lose in this overwhelmingly Republican state, which means the wheelchair ad will go down in political history as a terrible mistake. The controversy isn’t bringing us any closer to some kind of consensus on when it’s appropriate to refer to a political opponent’s physical attributes — or his religion, the size of his house, decisions he has made on behalf of his family, etc. We’re still wrestling with the question of when the personal is political, but we’re too easily distracted by knee-jerk reactions to things that make us uncomfortable, like that empty wheelchair that could someday be occupied by any of us.

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