America’s quadrennial exercise in presidential politics is again upon us.
In 1992, activists hounded the candidates with signs reading “What About AIDS?” Through their effort, AIDS was raised as an issue, and the distinctions between the candidates were drawn clearly. With Clinton’s victory, the AIDS community felt hope for the first time that the occupant of the White House might actually exercise leadership to end the epidemic.
Perhaps no point in the campaign was more inspiring for people with HIV than at the Democratic convention when Bob Hattoy and the late Elizabeth Glaser spoke of their pride, community and illness with unusual eloquence. The symbolism of HIV positive speakers even extended to the Republicans’ hate-fest in Houston, where Mary Fisher bravely spoke truth from a podium still soiled with venom from Pat Buchanan’s lies.
What about this year? POZ asked an assortment of political pundits to look into their crystal balls and share with us what they anticipate at the conventions and throughout the campaign this fall.
-- Sean O. Strub
M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D.
Former Surgeon General
I do not see AIDS as an issue that either presidential candidate will address directly this fall. When this country sees how they turned this medical problem into a political football, neither party will want to display its dirty linen in public. I do not expect to see a presence of HIV speakers at the convention this year. The HIV positive speakers in 1992 had a very heartening effect on the American people. However, we still did nothing. AIDS represents a cross section of all the problems that are going on in America, including our failure to deal with the problems of tobacco, drugs, alcohol, sexuality issues and nutrition issues. Education, education, education, is the answer. It is too bad our leaders cannot understand that.
Republican, U.S. House of Representatives, Florida
I doubt if Clinton and Dole will ever address AIDS directly in a public forum. There will be a reluctance on Clinton’s part because he’s been on so many sides of the issue. Dole won’t bring it up because it isn’t something that differentiates him from Clinton. I think we will have HIV positive speakers at the conventions. There are probably a couple of million voters for whom AIDS is a key issue when considering their presidential vote. There are Republicans who are trying to prove we are sensitive on AIDS. We have 126-plus signatures on the bill to repeal the Dornan amendment [booting HIV positive service members out of the military]. I’ve been helping [Republican Representative Peter] Torkildsen get more.
Member, Democratic National Committee
The Republican convention is likely to be as hostile and hateful as last time if Dole negotiates with Buchanan to prevent an independent bid. We will see some moderation in the general tone of the convention to portray the GOP as conservative but not extreme. Lots of family-values talk but not holy-war stuff. They may allow some “innocent victim” speech, but I don’t see them addressing AIDS in any meaningful way. The Clinton campaign will continue its attempt to steal the family-values thunder back from the GOP, and that could be trouble for AIDS and gay-lesbian issues. I think we should be careful that we not give the president an out that allows him to use the symbol of HIV positive speakers over the substance of actual work on the issue. We have a responsibility to hold his feet to the fire.
Republicans for Choice
The Republican convention planners are trying to figure out how to keep the kooks on the right from ruining the convention. Unless Mary Fisher is invited back to the Republican convention, there won’t be an AIDS-specific focus. Certainly there will be demonstrations, including from Log Cabin Republicans, so from that aspect AIDS will be addressed. Republicans for Choice put in a request for a demonstration permit for a prayer vigil against hate, commensurate with whatever time Pat Buchanan speaks. The pro-choice people will get either the vice president or the platform. If they don’t give us someone pro-choice on the ticket, they will have to give us the platform.
CNN Political Analyst
I’ve been covering the campaign for a year and I haven’t heard the issue of AIDS come up once from either Clinton or Dole. Clinton has made an effort to try and mend fences with the gay community, after the gays in the military debacle. The bill kicking out HIV positive military personnel was an embarrassment for him. The gay-marriage issue is explosive for him because it is very much like gays in the military. Bob Dole hates talking about social issues. Anything touching on religious values tears the Republican party apart, whether it’s AIDS, gay marriage or abortion. They don’t want a repeat of the Houston convention in 1992 where they lost points because they seemed to stigmatize. Even Mary Fisher’s speech was upsetting to conservative delegates. “Why do we have to have this in our face?” they asked.
Co-Chair, Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) and Former Board President, GMHC
ESPA’s agenda has been to increase the gay and lesbian presence in the Clinton campaign and White House. In 1992, there was one alternate lesbian delegate. This year in the first go-round of delegate selection we ended up with nine gay and lesbian delegates statewide. Two are HIV positive. I’m pretty sure that in the second round we’ll get six to nine additional delegates, of which one or two will be openly HIV positive. I’ll be disappointed if AIDS is not discussed at the convention.
Executive Director, Human Rights Campaign
The key point is Medicaid. If there is yet one more grand litmus test for Clinton, it is Medicaid. Every gay and AIDS organization must remain firm that this is a bottom-line issue. Clinton and Dole won’t be in a dialogue about AIDS this fall. The Democratic convention will probably take some steps to remind America about AIDS. I don’t expect to see the Republican convention do anything about it.
Political Columnist, The Village Voice
As much as I hate to say it, there’s a feeling in both campaigns that AIDS is something they attended to the last time around. Even the mainstream media aren’t covering it anymore. Without outside pressure from the activists, AIDS won’t be an issue. My bet is that even if gay delegates in the Democratic party try to push for specific AIDS issues at the convention, they will meet with much more hostility this year than they did in ’92.
Manager, 1992 Democratic Convention, Former Board Chair, AIDS Action Council
I hope AIDS will play as a public-health issue, rather than as a political issue. In the absence of the issue being raised by the media -- or some event or incident -- the candidates won’t talk about it. I don’t think there will be HIV-positive speakers at the conventions. I’m convinced there isn’t a monolithic AIDS voting bloc, although polls show it is the No. 1 health issue for people of color.
Commissioner for N.Y. Worker’s Compensation Board, Board Member, GMHC
If AIDS is raised as an issue during the campaign, it will come from the activist community, who will push the candidates. There are people very committed to this issue, and come hell or high water, they will be at the conventions and be heard. As loud and visible as four years ago? No. Many people involved in HIV are often involved in other issues like choice, health care and social justice, which makes it more difficult to distinguish a single bloc of AIDS voters. We’re not viewed as much as an essential constituency as we were four years ago.
Editor, The New Republic
The idea that Clinton is the only thing preventing massive cuts in federal AIDS research has not turned out to be true. It’s remarkable to me how the Republicans have not gutted the AIDS programs that one might have thought they would. We haven’t even seen an attempt to dramatically scale back the Ryan White funding. The thing that is really maddening about Clinton is he both grandstands the issue and then fails to deliver. In some ways you can handle one or the other. But you sure as hell do not hold a conference opposing AIDS discrimination and then fire people who are HIV positive two months later. That you do not do if you have any self-respect. At least Bush was consistent. It’s better to be ignored than betrayed.
Author, Coming Out Conservative, Political Columnist
AIDS will play no part in the Republican convention because they don’t give a shit about us. AIDS is something that just doesn’t matter to them anymore. What do they have to gain by fooling around with it? Dole’s not a bad guy, but he’s swept by the winds of Buchanan and the right. Buchanan and his crowd will have an enormous influence on the convention, covertly. And they just plain don’t like gay people. They really consider gays as children of Satan. And what happens to children of Satan? They are destroyed. If AIDS does it, great, it’s easier than putting us in death chambers. It sounds hysterical, but it’s true.
Director of Public Policy, AmFAR
In ’92 I was on the President’s National Commission on AIDS. We were involved in the campaign at least indirectly by issuing a report that was a blueprint for what the country needed to do about AIDS: health care for all; clear, explicit prevention programs; needle exchange; condoms in the schools; an end to discrimination; a cure. Some important things have happened since then, but you know what? It is still at a blueprint stage.
Director of Research and Treatment Advocacy, National Minority AIDS Council
The Clinton administration understands the magnitude of the epidemic, but it lacks the political will to do very much. I was a member of the National Task Force on AIDS Drug Development. When it was first created, it was a big deal -- there was all this hype about how now Clinton was doing something about AIDS. But in reality the task force had very little support from the administration. When we finally came up with a list of recommendations, we had a big meeting scheduled with [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Donna Shalala, but it never happened. The next thing we knew, the task force was disbanded.
Clinton will look terrific by November. Until now, it has been Clinton against Clinton, and he always comes up short of his promises. But when you’re running against the party of Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, you’re going to look good. The biggest danger for Clinton is that people will stay home. History tells us when you stay home, you get the greater of two evils, not the lesser of two evils. The AIDS community needs to do everything it can for Clinton. If they don’t, it means they are four or eight years behind the radical right in learning how to play this game.
ACT UP/DC, HIV Positive Presidential Candidate, AIDS Cure Party
PWAs need to be motivated to go to the polls and vote for Clinton, but under the present circumstances, we are not motivated. It is not acceptable in 1996 that we have to once again disrupt Clinton’s speeches on the campaign trail in order to get him to even mention the word AIDS. But our national gay organizations have made it acceptable by marginalizing AIDS. Getting Clinton re-elected is more important to them than making sound AIDS policy, so they want PWAs to shut up about AIDS and vote. My plan is to get the AIDS Cure Party on the ballot in New York and as many states as possible. Even if we only take 1 percent of the vote from Clinton, we’ll create the illusion of an AIDS voting bloc, and AIDS will become a small part of the media coverage. I swear AIDS will become the no. 1 issue at least for one day between now and November 5.