The Wheelchair Ad

It's not as bad as you've heard, but it may not have been smart.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is greeted onstage by his wife Cecilia and his daughter Audrey after he announces he's running for governor in San Antonio.
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott is greeted onstage by his wife Cecilia and his daughter Audrey after he announces he's running for governor in San Antonio.

By now, a tremendous amount has been written about the ad the Davis campaign released last Friday. But since the campaign is continuing to focus on issues raised by the ad this week, including at a press conference in Fort Worth this morning, it’s worth saying a bit about it. Here’s the ad, in case you missed it:

It’s the first five seconds of the ad that are getting all of the attention. The ad starts with a picture of an empty wheelchair. Abbott, of course, is disabled. The voiceover begins with an extraordinarily odd opening line: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.”

The rest of the ad is a recitation of points that Davis has hit Abbott with in the past, encapsulated by the idea that Abbott is an “Austin insider,” and Davis is “working for all Texans.” A number of headlines roll by on a black background under menacing music: One of them relates to the Kirby vacuum company rape case, the subject of Davis’ first ad. One of them relates to the case of Christopher Duntsch, an appallingly incompetent doctor who killed and injured patients and whose hospital was protected from liability by tort reform laws. The point: Greg Abbott got his, then helped keep that privilege from others. He’s a hypocrite.

When the ad was released, the internet erupted in outrage. What to make of it all?

It’s possible to think a lot of the criticism of the ad is silly and overheated while still finding the ad itself harmful to the Davis campaign. When the ad dropped late last Friday—never a good time for clear-headed analysis—a critical mass quickly formed on Twitter, as national pundits passed the ad back and both.

To pick one extreme example among liberal commentators, Ben Dreyfuss at Mother Jones shot pretty wide of the mark when he wrote that the ad was “basically calling Abbott a cripple,” and accused the Davis campaign of saying that “Greg Abbott is unfit to serve because he is handicapped.” I can’t find that in the ad. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake called the spot “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” It’s not even the nastiest ad in this race—for my money, that distinction still belongs to Davis’ first ad, a sleekly exploitative spot that used a grimly allusive true-crime reenactment to turn the story of a horrific rape into a political cudgel with which to bash Abbott.

But if some of the criticism was overblown, there’s a defense of the ad from Davis supporters that misses the mark. The ad is about Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy, and nothing else—they say that the press and others who highlight the treatment of Abbott’s accident in the ad are being willfully obtuse. But with a political ad, as with anything else a person creates and puts into the world, the perception of the thing is indistinguishable from the thing itself. You can’t say what a thing is and wall it off from the interpretation of others. Politics is about managing popular perceptions. And if a large number of people find something to be in poor taste, there’s probably something to that.

Would it have been possible to use Abbott’s accident to highlight his hypocrisy on tort reform in a better way? Probably. It might have been better to avoid altogether, but it seems possible that the Davis people could have approached the subject of Abbott’s accident more delicately. One problem with the ad, it seems to me, is that a viewer might take the message that there was something nefarious about Abbott’s original lawsuit. The sinister opening flashes the headline “Abbott could receive $10.7 million” on screen as the narrator stresses the word “millions,” as if he was describing the illicit use of a private jet.

Have you seen that ISIS ad that Dan Patrick started running last week? As ridiculous as it was, Patrick’s talk about ISIS only took up the ad’s first four seconds. They led with it because it was punchy and they knew it would get attention. Davis’ campaign did the same thing, and it worked, although it may not be the kind of attention they were hoping for.

Is it possible the ad’s high profile will help Davis? Well, it’s helped give her message a boost. The ad has been watched more than 375,000 times as of mid-day Monday—it’s the most-watched video her campaign has produced so far. But a lot of the viewers will be watching it because of the mass condemnation.

At the press conference this morning, Davis was introduced by two disabled-rights supporters and an advocate for the rights of sexual assault victims. The event was partially a defense of the ad, and partially an opportunity to re-emphasize talking points in front of what was presumably a larger audience than normal.

Southern Methodist University law student Lamar White, who is disabled, opened the press conference with a strong condemnation of Abbott’s career as it related to the defense of victims’ rights. “Why does he deserve justice and they do not?” he asked. “I’m grateful to the Wendy Davis campaign for reminding people” of Abbott’s actions.

Victims’ rights advocate Livinia Masters said much the same, emphasizing that Abbott “rightly sought justice for himself,” but “turned his back on others who sought the same justice.”

Another disability advocate, Laurie Oliver, had stronger words: “Shame on you, Greg Abbott. Your hypocrisy makes you unfit to be governor.”

When Davis took to the stage, she emphasized that Abbott had “rightly” sued following his accident, and that she was “glad” he won his case. “He deserved justice for the terrible tragedy he endured,” Davis said. “But then, he turned around and built his career working to deny the very same justice he received to his fellow Texans rightly seeking it for themselves.”

Again: “Greg Abbott has built a career kicking down the ladder behind him,” Davis said. “We need to call this what it is: hypocrisy.”

In the end, it’s hard not to come away from this episode reflecting on the demoralizing race we’ve had so far. Neither of these campaigns seem to be inspiring many people. Abbott’s ads have been relentlessly, painstakingly empty—even the ads ostensibly about policy say little of value about what kind of governor he’d be, a question for which we still have few answers.

And Davis’ ads have been relentlessly negative. I find it hard to believe that many Texans know very much about what kind of governor she’d be, even now. Maybe both are running the smartest plays available to them—but it’s not exactly a good sales pitch for civic engagement.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 2:10 pm CST
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