In a presidential election characterized by dissatisfaction with the status quo, why are third party candidates silent on HIV?
What is the victory of a third party candidate in a presidential election? Surely, the simplest answer is that victory can only be found under the banner of electoral triumph. Ask Gary Johnson or Jill Stein such a question and their reply will be a reflection of that sentiment—an acknowledgement that while their road is long and the odds are stacked against them, they can win in November if only the American people would divert their eyes from the tired spectacle of the bipartisan electoral process. In certain respects, it is the only answer they can give. However, in the ineluctable dead air of their eighteen hour days, when the din of meet-and-greets and interviews has died down and they’re left alone with the weight of their doubt, they must know they have no chance.
Confidence is a crucial ingredient of any presidential campaign. However, if a candidate and their followers allow reality and expectation diverge too greatly, that confidence can only be categorized as delusion. There is a fairly sizable gray area where the seemingly irrational confidence of a campaign can be chalked up to exuberance, but it is safe to say that both the Libertarian and Green candidates for president are nowhere near it. With Gary Johnson and Jill Stein polling at around 9% and 4% respectively in 4-way race 2 months away from election day, anyone who sincerely believes that either candidate can win The White House in November is living in an alternate reality.
Now, having accepted the fact that electoral victory is not possible, there are two distinct types of victory that can be sought: victory for principle and victory for party. Historically, successful third party presidential runs have usually fallen in the first category, with candidates representing political parties that fought hard for a particular issue and then faded away into the night. By and large, the most noteworthy third party presidential runs centered around racial issues, with 6 of the 10 highest third party vote getters belonging to short-lived groups like the Free Soilers, the Know-Nothings and the American Independence Party who were driven by issues surrounding slavery, nativism and the battle against racial equality.
Both of the major third party players in the 2016 election have no desire to emulate these single issues groups—the Green Party’s cause-specific name not withstanding. If the platforms of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are any indication, they see their parties as necessary additions to the American political landscape that can win over great swaths of voters and which have a vision that is equal in scope to that of the Republicans and the Democrats. Whether or not that conception of their roles in the American political process is firmly grounded in reality or not, the fact remains that both Johnson and Stein are fighting for a sense of legitimacy from the punditry and the general public just as much as they are for raw votes. When they make the rounds on the Sunday talk shows or go to town hall forums and demand inclusion in the presidential debates, they do so (or, at least, one would hope they do so) with an aim to shuffling off the toxic label of spoiler that is so often cast on third party candidates in America and to show that they’re going to be around for more than just a cup of coffee.
However, in order to enter the mainstream of US politics, Stein and Johnson have to get outside of their comfort zones. Even more so than the two major party candidates, they must publicly address a broad array of policy stances that speak to the needs of a diverse cross-section of the American electorate and show, at the very least, a familiarity and a competence with the sorts of issues that might not appeal directly to their base, but which display a well-roundedness in their campaigns and allow their party to expand outside the ideologically narrow bubbles they currently occupy.
Under these circumstances, where so many disparate parts of the electorate seem to be clamoring for alternative options, it is especially disappointing that both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have been relatively silent on HIV/AIDS this election. At the time of writing this article, neither Johnson or Stein mention HIV in their campaign platforms and, if they do talk about HIV in interviews or on social media, it’s usually in support of another issue that resonates more with their base. For Gary Johnson, this means using lowered HIV transmission as a reason to support harm reduction policies like syringe access programs. In Jill Stein’s case, her discussion of HIV has mirrored that of Bernie Sanders in so far as she acknowledges the need to make HIV medication affordable, but only within the confines of the larger discussion around the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and the necessity of making cheaper, generic drugs available to everyone.
Such comments are certainly welcome, but the mere mention of HIV/AIDS in a discussion of other policy issues doesn’t come close to addressing the needs of Americans living with HIV and fails to mirror the amount of influence each candidate would have in the unlikely event of their election to the presidency. Between President Bush’s establishment of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and President Obama’s implementation of the nation’s first ever comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the executive branch has become in many respects the focal point of Federal HIV/AIDS policy and the campaign platforms of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein need to reflect that fact.
While it is worth acknowledging that the relatively miniscule campaign coffers and staffs of these third party candidates make it difficult for them to present as sweeping and polished an HIV policy as a major party candidate like Hillary Clinton, this paucity of resources is no excuse for a lack of effort and understanding on their part. As a former governor of New Mexico and a one time practicing doctor of internal medicine respectively, Johnson and Stein should already have a solid baseline of knowledge on HIV policy and medical practices in the United States, so it shouldn’t be too much to ask both of them to brush up their knowledge on the subject during their presidential runs.
As candidates for the highest office in the country, it is incumbent upon Johnson and Stein to demonstrate how their platform and approach to governance would benefit each and every American, not just those whose needs most neatly align with the issues they themselves are passionate about. For both the Libertarian and the Green parties, their futures depend not upon the strengthening of their bonds with the small subset of the US population who naturally identifies with their message, but with the expansion of their spheres of influence into portions of the electorate who are currently unaware or unimpressed with what their party has to offer.
For someone like Gary Johnson, this means demonstrating to people living with HIV and those that advocate on their behalf that a Libertarian approach focused on the decentralization of a Federal government that provides the bulk of the funding that supports the programs that serve them would actually be to their benefit. For a candidate like Jill Stein, this signals an opportunity to show how a foreign policy that drastically reduces foreign military interventions while substantially increasing the budgets of PEPFAR and other programs that address HIV-related issues could significantly improve diplomatic relations in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.
The task of garnering support from the previously untapped sections of the population that are contained within the broader HIV community will not be an easy one, but it is necessary to establishing the candidacies of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein as being representative of a serious political movement that has its sights set beyond 2016 and to the establishment of the sort of solid foothold in American politics that has eluded third parties for most of the nation’s history. If Johnson and Stein want to be treated like more than protest candidates, they need to act accordingly, and adding a well articulated HIV/AIDS policy plank to their platforms wouldn’t be a bad place to start.