Under most circumstances, it would have been hard to begrudge Hillary Clinton too much for saying a few nice things about Nancy Reagan at her funeral earlier this year. Regardless of your feelings towards either woman, it is usually considered good form to give at least tepid praise to the dead after they have passed and, as members of that elite cadre of extant First Ladies, they could relate to one another regarding the unique pressures of that position like only 4 other women in this country can. With that being said, there is a very definite line between praising the deceased and inverting history to make her look better, which is what Clinton did when she praised Nancy Reagan for helping start a national conversation on AIDS, a comment that makes about as much as lauding Marie Antoinette for her work to promote income equality.
After the inevitable uproar from the the HIV and LGBT communities, Clinton immediately walked back her remarks, giving a fairly soft apology and claiming that she “misspoke” when referring to Mrs. Reagan’s record regarding AIDS. It’s hard to see how a woman who lived through the unmitigated hell that was the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the Reagans’ deliberate refusal to so much as acknowledge it could misspeak in such a manner, especially one who has, like Mrs. Clinton, been working with HIV and LGBT advocates for going on 25 years and who helped launch PEPFAR’s Blueprint For An AIDS-Free Generation during her time as Secretary of State. The answer, I suspect, is as simple as it is unsatisfactory: she screwed up.
When Clinton made the remarks that she did about Nancy Reagan and HIV on MSNBC, she was in full-on pander mode. Knowing full well the reverence with which most conservatives hold the Reagans, she was probably trying her best to endear herself to many of the socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republicans and independents that she hopes to pick off in the general election and, due to some combination of word vomit and selective amnesia, she ended up praising Nancy Reagan for doing something she most certainly never did.
The apology that Clinton gave for her statements meant about as close to nothing as you can get without saying anything at all. A presidential candidate saying they misspoke about something after public outcry against them is the political equivalent of a child apologizing to his parents because he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. However, Mrs. Clinton does deserve credit for following through with her pledge to meet with HIV activists earlier this week in the wake of her Reagan snafu to hear their concerns and outline, in a non-specific manner, what she would do to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic as President. As she did in an op-ed that she published after her controversial comments, Clinton called for increasing access to PrEP, capping drug costs and out-of-pocket medical expenses and reform of punitive HIV criminalization laws. The general attitude of those asked for comment after the meeting seemed to be subdued, but encouraged.
By contrast, the whole Nancy Reagan snafu left Bernie Sanders in a rather politically enviable position. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, who has been very involved—for good or ill—with HIV/AIDS advocacy groups throughout her political career, Senator Sanders doesn’t have much of a record to stand on when it comes to the issues related to HIV. This was a tremendous opportunity for Mr. Sanders to not just distinguish himself from the neoliberal policies of his rival in the Democratic Party, but, more importantly, to demonstrate to those people living with HIV that he truly cares about their unique struggles, that he is well versed in the specific issues being posed by the HIV epidemic today, and that he would continue to engage in healthy dialogue with them if he is elected President. Thus far, the Independent Senator from Vermont has not taken advantage of that opportunity.
Earlier this week, the Sanders campaign cancelled their meeting with HIV/AIDS activists that had been in the works since before the New York primary. No reason was given for the cancellation and the HIV/AIDS advocates who had been expecting to meet with Senator Sanders were left completely in the dark. On its own, this qualifies as an understandable, albeit unnerving, lack of follow-through on behalf of the Sanders campaign. However, this was in fact the 2nd time that that Bernie Sanders—or at least Sanders’ handlers—had left these HIV/AIDS activists high and dry. Before the cancelled meeting this week there was another cancelled meeting that was scheduled for the first week of May. Another meeting has supposedly been set up between the activists and Senator Sanders on May 25th while the presidential candidate is in California.
Whether this meeting takes place or not remains to be seen, but, either way, the Sanders campaign has managed to pretty thoroughly drop the ball on this issue thus far, something they cannot afford to do if they still have designs on winning the Democratic nomination. Two of the demographics with which Hillary has the largest leads over Bernie thus far in the primaries—blacks and LGBT folks—are also the two demographics that are being hit hardest by the HIV epidemic. It’s hard to imagine a rational or strategic reason why the Sanders campaign would repeatedly renege on meetings with HIV/AIDS activists, so the only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that Sanders’ campaign staff is either too small or too unorganized to keep up with their candidate’s schedule.
This is not say that the Hillary Clinton is necessarily a better candidate for HIV/AIDS advocates and people living with HIV than Bernie Sanders. Given the obscenely high prices of antiretroviral drugs, the byzantine nature of HIV service provision in today’s post-Affordable Care Act landscape and the ways in which what state you live in can be the biggest determinant of the quality of HIV care a person receives, Sanders’ proposed universal health care plan would be a boon to both people living with HIV as well as those who provide HIV treatment and prevention services and those who advocate for more robust HIV policies. Ask the thousands of HIV positive Kentuckians who don’t know if they’ll be able to keep their Medicaid in the years to come because of the election of one Tea Party Governor or the hundreds of thousands more HIV positive folks who live in parts of the country that are, not coincidentally, fighting Medicaid expansion and Obamacare tooth and nail and are the hardest hit by the HIV epidemic if the current healthcare system is working for them and I have a feeling most of them will say it isn’t. With that being said, there is nothing in Bernie Sanders’ history that shows me he has a commitment to advocating for the rights of HIV positive Americans in specific.
A perfect example of the reason I feel this way is the one piece of HIV/AIDS-related legislation that Bernie has put forth in the Senate. The legislation, the Prize Fund for HIV/AIDS Act, was proposed by Senator Sanders in 2011 to try and fundamentally shift the way in which we, as a society, incentivize the development of new HIV medications in a way that both encourages development and that reduces the cost of newly developed drugs. There is nothing wrong with this legislation in and of itself. Anyone who has even a passing understanding of the prices the pharmaceutical companies charge for brand name HIV medications and the shortages that have historically resulted from those inflated prices—Big Pharma executives and investors excluded—should agree that the development and patent process for HIV meds is fundamentally flawed and needs to be overhauled in a way that allows for universal access to those medications for people who need them. However, this bill was never really about people living with HIV so much as it was about the busting up of monopolies and the institution of sweeping patent reform in the United States.
If you doubt me, I encourage you to watch this video showing what Sanders and his staffers thought were the most prescient moments from the Senate subcommittee meeting on the Prize Fund for HIV/AIDS Act. Somehow, the Sanders folks managed to come up with a video about a Senate subcommittee on a piece of HIV/AIDS legislation that involves no other Senators, no witnesses with any experience working with HIV, and no mention of HIV/AIDS from the person who created the legislation. A look at the full 95 minute recording of the meeting doesn’t instill much confidence in Senator Sanders’ commitment to HIV advocacy considering that it took him a full 6 minutes to even mention HIV/AIDS during his address to the subcommittee and that, before doing so, he explicitly stated that the concepts he would talk about were applicable to all diseases and that he had submitted prize fund legislation for those as well.
Again, this is not to say that Bernie Sanders couldn’t be an effective advocate for people living with HIV. The plan that the Sanders campaign put forth concerning the Senator’s HIV policy was, while very focused on pharmaceutical reform and non-HIV specific reforms regarding universal health care and opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, clear on his intention to expand Ryan White, PEPFAR and HOPWA funding, which should provide some reassurance to HIV advocates as to the sorts of policies a Sanders administration might pursue. But, the bottom line is that actions speak significantly louder than words and, if Bernie either fails to meet with HIV/AIDS activists later in May or meets with them and doesn’t display a firm commitment to fighting for the specific needs of people living with HIV, none of that’s going to matter.