If one puts much stock in the old axiom that says “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” it would be safe to conclude that we as a nation have lying on the canvas for the past half century or so. This holds especially if the house in question is the US House of Representatives, in which case they’ve been trying to rake one another’s eyes out on the ground rather than helping one another up. When Abraham Lincoln gave his House Divided speech after receiving the 1858 Republican nomination for the US Senate, he was referring to “the slave question” when he spoke of a need for national unity. It should be noted that this stance did not get Lincoln elected to the Senate that year, although it did pave the way for his future presidency and eternal ascendence into the pantheon of american history. And, while history often remembers Lincoln as The Great Emancipator, even he was not convinced of the necessity for emancipation until the middle of his first term. At that point, political expediency merged with moral conviction to cause Lincoln’s introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation, in large part as a way to justify unprecedented number casualties of The Civil War.
Today, the sheer multiplicity of issues that our nation’s entrenched parties cannot agree upon is staggering and not a little daunting to any citizen seeking compromise and reconciliation. This is not to suggest that any of the social and political issues of today rival in scope or importance the issue of slavery, but when lumped together they may mark a more formidable challenge. Especially with the gift of hindsight, the debates surrounding issues like slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights seem ludicrous and the idea that many of our ancestors openly fought against these causes elicit shame and bewilderment. However, if these issues were black and white, our current political climate is one of grayscale. Despite what politicians may have us believe in stump speeches and campaign advertisements, there is rarely a clear cut “right” and “wrong” side to any of these issues. The abortion debate is a perfect example of this. One side believes in the sanctity of life beginning at the moment of conception and the other believes in a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and well-being. Neither of these stances are maleficent and they speak to a desire for enhanced rights of human beings in all stages of our life cycle. For all the venom and vitriol that makes the evening news, so much of this debate is about people trying to better the lives of those around them while adhering to a proscribed moral code.
I myself am very often guilty of letting disdain, distrust and sometimes outright hate for politicians cloud my judgement and my ability to see all sides of an issue. For me, no one brought these feelings out more than George W. Bush and his administration during his two terms in The White House. As a New Deal loving, very left-leaning social worker, it would be understandable for me to be…displeased with the goings on in Washington during much of the last decade. Aside from the fact that he appeared to be a congenial guy and he made entertaining verbal gaffes regularly, I couldn’t think of one thing I actually liked about the man. George W. Bush seemed like someone who would be fun to have a drink with and watch a ballgame–he used to own the Texas Rangers so he could have gotten us great seats–but I didn’t want the man anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
When I was assigned by the University of Maryland-Baltimore to do case management work at a local HIV clinic, I began doing some research on pertinent HIV legislation and funding because I’m a policy nerd and I can’t help myself. After looking through HIV policy for the past 20 years and juxtaposing the approaches that recent presidential administrations have taking in fighting the epidemic, a funny thing happened: I found myself siding with George W. Bush. While I may have wildly divergent views from W. on most matters, his HIV record during his eight years in office was surprisingly impressive. He dedicated more resources to HIV than any president before or since, with his spending on HIV/AIDS increasing to the tune of $1.39 billion a year. Bush’s record on international HIV/AIDS care is even more impressive, with his contributions to PEPFAR sure to be one of the positive legacies of his administration. Last year, Matt Damon came out and said the he would “kiss George W. Bush on the mouth” for all the work he did with PEPFAR. A quick look at the numbers bear out Damon’s enthusiasm, if not necessarily his method of expressing it. Under George W. Bush, the funding for the Global Health Initiative was increased almost tenfold, from just over half a billion in his first year in office to more than 5 billion when packed his things and went home to Crawford. In contrast, President Obama’s first term has seen relative stagnation in Federal HIV funding with the administration’s FY 2013 budget request barely exceeding the gains necessary to keep pace with inflation.
Of course, since then we’ve gone through a massive recession and groundbreaking healthcare legislation that will benefit HIV+ individuals has been passed, so it would be a little unfair to criticize the Obama Administration too much for their record on HIV/AIDS, especially since they were the first administration to release a National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Both administrations made great strides in HIV care in markedly different ways and it would behoove us to make sure the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater on this one. Progressives could chose to focus on the fact that much of PEPFAR’s purpose under George W. Bush was in the preaching of an abstinence only approach to HIV prevention and sex education. Likewise, conservatives could choose to harp on the Medicaid expansion and individual mandate in Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Based on the viciously partisan rhetoric being thrown around Washington at the moment, that seems as though that may be the case. But I believe those of us who have any association, personal or professional, with HIV nationally and globally can stand united with the knowledge that unity does not necessarily connote mutual belief. Go ahead: it’s fine to criticize and critique those with views opposite to yours. Just make sure that you also let them know when your goals are shared and collaboration is possible.