The Inflammatory Texas Campaign Wheelchair Ad: Four Blunt Points

The Texas “wheelchair ad” has ignited a firestorm of blather. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, is running a 30-second TV spot that focuses on her conservative opponent’s use of a wheelchair and his opposition to injury lawsuits. Outrageous? Out of bounds? In fact, the ad raises important issues about the big business of liability law. Four blunt points:

1. By modern negative campaign standards, the Davis ad isn’t that offensive. It begins with an image of an unoccupied wheelchair. That’s kind of impolite, I guess, because we generally don’t focus on people’s disabilities. Politics often gets impolite, though. “A tree fell on Greg Abbott,” the ad’s narrator intones. Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Texas attorney general, was partially paralyzed in 1984 after being struck by a falling tree while jogging. In text superimposed over the empty wheelchair, the ad notes that, according to a 2002 Associated Press report, Abbott could receive “as much as $10.7 million” as a result of litigation he brought over his accident. Then the punch line: “Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.” More specifically, Abbott, like many Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, has pushed for “tort reform”: restrictions on the ability of plaintiffs (like him) to sue over injuries caused by others. That’s simply true, and it does make Abbott something of a hypocrite on this issue.

2. Republicans, naturally, are feigning indignation. So are Democrats. The Abbott campaign called the ad “disgusting.” Steve Munisteri, Texas Republican Party chairman, demanded that Davis apologize to disabled people. “The Wendy Davis ad is easily the most offensive and despicable ad I have seen in my 42 years of politics,” Munisteri said. Failing to think before they fulminate, liberal critics joined the chorus of condemnation. “I would not have used that wheelchair,” former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile said on MSNBC. “She’s basically calling Abbott a cripple,” Mother Jones chipped in.

3. Wait a second. It was Abbott who made his disability an issue. The Republican’s ads show him wheeling himself up a steep parking garage to demonstrate his strength and determination. When he started his campaign in July 2013, he recounted the day decades earlier he went out for a run and ended up with a crushed spinal cord. He even described the surgery that placed steel rods in his back and promised supporters he’d “use my steel spine to fight for you and for every Texas family.” Fair enough. Good line. But for years he’s used his steel spine to try to close the courthouse doors to other people who’ve suffered grievous injury. Having put his disability in play, Abbott is in no position to object when an opponent points out the moral and logical flaw in his self-serving metaphor.

4. Tort reform is a perfectly legitimate subject of debate. Abbott and fellow Republicans have had success reining in their state’s notoriously rollicking plaintiffs’ bar. Some tort reform makes sense; class-action attorneys have repeatedly overreached in litigation over asbestos and other dangerous substances. Favoring restraint in mass suits does not, however, require vilifying individual legal actions on behalf of people afflicted by negligent doctors—or errant trees. Political gurus such as my Bloomberg Politics colleague David Weigel don’t think that Wendy Davis’s attention-grabbing wheelchair ad will turn around her underdog campaign. Give her credit, though, for some justifiable—and potentially constructive—political incorrectness.

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