Wendy Davis' attack ad was bad -- and made a valid point poorly

Bringing up Greg Abbott's disability wasn't necessary -- and hypocrisy is the least of the GOPer's offenses

Published October 13, 2014 7:43PM (EDT)

Wendy Davis                   (AP/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis (AP/Eric Gay)

Texas state senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is making no apologies for a new attack ad directed at her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott. The spot, which was released on Friday, notes Abbott's partial paralysis as the result of a 1984 accident, over which he sued and was awarded over $10 million in damages. Critics on both sides of the aisle have roundly condemned the Davis campaign for the attack, which includes an empty photo of a wheelchair (Abbott uses one) as a backdrop to claims of Abbott's hypocrisy -- bullet-pointed examples of the candidate ruling against an amputee, a rape survivor and the victims of surgical malpractice. But Davis and her aides have stood by the advertisement so far, and show no signs of saying sorry.

“In 1984, Greg Abbott sought out and received justice following a horrible injury, rightly so," Davis said at a press conference on Monday, Politico reports. "And I’m glad, he deserved justice for the terrible tragedy that he endured ... But then he turned around and built his career working to deny the very same justice that he received to his fellow Texans rightly seeking it for themselves."

Davis went on to reiterate the point of the ad -- to call out Abbott's hypocrisy -- by asserting that the attorney general "has built a career kicking the ladder down behind him and denying to others the very same justice that he both deserved and received."

"“We need to call this what it is — hypocrisy," Davis added. "But there is example after example of it, harming the people that he is supposed to be fighting for.”

But, in addition to unnecessarily depicting the wheelchair and making Abbott's disability part of the campaign, the problem with the picture Davis paints in her ad is that it tackles the wrong issue. As the American Prospect points out, the spot's portrayal of Abbott's record is a mostly accurate one, based rightly on the attorney general's decades-long history of attempting to shutter courthouses to those in need of justice. "Abbott's record on disability issues is absolutely legitimate, since it has been part of his work as attorney general," Paul Waldman writes. "This is an issue on which he has received criticism before, including on the specific question of whether people who are disabled should be able to sue for compensation. His own history would seem relevant to that issue."

But it's not relevant necessarily, as it doesn't seem to have weighed much on the sides Abbott chooses. Suggesting that Abbott should side with victims because he was once a victim himself implies that he has more of an obligation to protect the rights of disabled Texans than, say, Wendy Davis. But they both have an equal obligation, and judging by Abbott's record, he hasn't fulfilled his. Whether that makes him a hypocrite or not should be of secondary concern, or maybe no concern at all; it indicates that he might be unwilling to deliver justice via the systems in place to provide it, and that's a problem. It's also a quality worthy of an attack ad, but it's not the quality for which the Davis campaign has attempted to vilify him.

Instead, Davis has stuck with the hypocrisy angle, in an apparent effort to reiterate the message of an ad with some admittedly troubling copy. The spot, which simply says Abbott "sued and got millions," fails to articulate what Davis clarified in her Monday press conference: that her opponent and other victims are deserving of compensation and justice. To say that Abbott has been instrumental in denying others their due is legitimate grounds for criticism -- and it holds up even without a picture of a wheelchair, which shouldn't have been included at all.

First, it detracts from the problem I've already mentioned: Abbott shirking his duty to Texans. But more importantly, as critics have already agreed, it's insensitive. It conflates disability with a negative aspect of Abbott's character, for which people rightfully lack patience. Using the wheelchair and drawing attention to Abbott's paralysis has no place in an attack ad. It's a bad move all around.

And it will hurt Davis. Despite whatever legitimate claims the ad might have included, the real message -- that Abbott is bad for Texas -- has been overshadowed by a freak accident three decades old. As Davis has now said herself, it was an accident for which her opponent deserved justice. And that's what voters will remember when they show up at the polls.

By Jenny Kutner

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2014 Elections Disabilities Governor Hypocrisy Texas Wendy Davis