Wendy Davis’ wheelchair ad: What’s the big deal?

    Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial candidate who’s reviled on the right as “Abortion Barbie,” is taking heat for a new TV ad that visually references her Republican foe’s physical disability.

    The ad, which depicts a wheelchair, is supposedly “disgusting,” an “historic low,” the “nastiest” of the ’14 midterms.

    Please. Don’t make me laugh.

    Granted, everyone probably has a different take on whether an ad is out of bounds. The process is subjective, sort of like the definition of obscenity, which is basically “I know it when I see it.” But the context of Davis’ wheelchair ad – an entirely appropriate, issue-driven context – is what matters most. Or it should, anyway.

    Abbott, the state attorney general, is confined to a wheelchair. Here’s the ad, and here’s the text: “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.”

    Republicans have naturally gone ballistic about this ad – which is hilarious, given their longstanding love of televised slime, dating back to the ’88 depiction of Michael Dukakis as soft on black rapists. (GOP strategist Lee Atwater, ’88: “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.)

    Republicans profess to be upset about the wheelchair, yet, this fall, they haven’t uttered a peep about the Georgia GOP ad that falsely paints Democratic senatorial candidate Michelle Nunn as a terrorist paymaster, or the Arkansas GOP ad that falsely paints President Obama as a guy who wants to take farmer aid and give it to slackers. They’re incensed by Davis’ depiction of a wheelchair, but they’re silent about clown-car congressman Steve Stockman, who wondered this week on the radio whether Obama was “intentionally” ignoring Ebola “in order to create a greater crisis to use it as a blunt force…to take control of the economy and individuals.”

    Some in the mainstream media and on the left have also flipped about the Davis ad – perhaps a PC instinct to defend the physically challenged; perhaps to show that they’re willing to bash a Democrat – and you know what? Those critics are wrong too.

    For starters, Davis didn’t put Abbott’s disabilty in play. He put it in play. Abbott has run several ads featuring his chair; there he is, in one ad, wheeling himself up a ramp (to show his perseverence) , and there he is, in another ad, rolling himself rolling along the shoulder of a highway (to show that he can move faster than car traffic). If Abbott can use his chair as a metaphor for good character, then Davis is entitled to reference a chair in the context of a serious issue.

    The issue, which naturally has been ignored amid the hoopla over the ad’s opening image, is simple: Abbott rightly got compensated for the incident that caused his disability, but as attorney general he has consistently thwarted Texans who have sought help for their disabilities. Davis didn’t concoct that charge out of thin air. Here’s the Dallas Morning News, in an investigative report last February:

    Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has said he supports the Americans with Disabilities Act, has tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.I n a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg….

    He has argued that his duty is to protect the state’s autonomy and its taxpayers by using all legal tools available to him – including the argument that the state is immune from disability lawsuits brought under the ADA….

    Advocates for the disabled say Abbott’s office has worked to deny ADA protections by repeatedly and falsely claiming that impaired Texans don’t have the right to sue the state for discrimination.

    By the way, advocates for the disabled aren’t bugged by Davis’ depiction of a chair. Dennis Borel, who directs the nonpartisan Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, told a reporter this week: “Let’s get past the imagery and get to the real issues” – such as, in his view, Abbott’s wrongful efforts to shield Texas from disability lawsuits.

    Yeah, I know: images trump issues. Maybe Davis would’ve been better off making the same point without showing a chair, if only to mollify those who can’t abide seeing a chair for eight seconds. But let it be noted that Abbott has not disputed a single aspect of Davis’ substantive message (nor was he willing last February to talk to the Dallas Morning News). If Davis is lying about his record, why won’t he say so? His silence suggests that she hit the mark. That’s important, at least for those of us who took the time – all of 30 seconds – to absorb the ad’s context.

    According to one commentator, here’s the bottom line: “Twitter tells me that I should be outraged by (Davis’) ad, but I just can’t muster it…the ad is hardly out of bounds, much less ‘disgusting,’ as Abbott’s campaign called it…For starters, questions of character matter. If Abbott is a hypocrite, it’s relevant.” All told, “the political firestorm that has erupted over her latest ad is more than little bit silly.”

    That’s Jamie Weinstein, a senior editor at the Daily Caller, a right-wing website. I’m with him.

     

     

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

     

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