Hillary Clinton On The Reagans’ AIDS Legacy: Anatomy Of A ‘Triangulation’

Here is my take on what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s ‘the Reagans started a national conversation about AIDS‘ statement (for which, after a ginormous shitstorm on social media had broken out, she apologized.)

In preparation for her remarks, Clinton must have been briefed–by not very competent people–that Nancy Reagan‘s funeral was a good opportunity to ‘reach out’ to, say,  ‘Reagan Republicans’ and ‘Reagan Democrats’ (the ‘Reagan Republican’ is a mythical creature more moderate than today’s flecked-with-spittle and foaming-at-the-mouth Republican types.) She could do this by acknowledging the Reagans’ ‘legacy’ in a domain of interest to Americans–hopefully crossing ‘political divides’–and show herself to be continuous with that American political tradition, which does not denigrate America or its greatness, or see anything fundamentally wrong in its social, economic and cultural polity that cannot be fixed by ‘more of the same.’ She would, at once, show herself concerned with public health issues, and also, by saying nice things about iconic Republican figures, perhaps ensure a softer reception for herself in the Republican demographic at the time of the general election.

Hillary Clinton was not prompted to give the response she did give by a Reagan-sympathizer questioner, who artfully used a leading question like “And what do you think about the Reagans’ starting a national conversation about AIDS at a time when no one else was interested in doing so?” To which, Clinton, in an awkward attempt to avoid saying “What are you on, crack?”–might have said instead, “Yes, it was a good thing.” Instead Clinton volunteered the response she did make, and moreover, she explicitly did it as a way of making the point that the Reagans were an outlier in an atmosphere that was not conducive to their efforts to begin a ‘national conversation.’ Clinton’s mistake might have seemed more genuine had she simply said something like “Nancy Reagan worked on many public health initiatives like those for stem-cell research, Alzheimers, AIDS, and other deadly diseases.” Then, she could plausibly say that she had mistakenly included AIDS in that list. But she did no such thing. Instead, as noted, she set the Reagans’ ‘work’ on AIDS apart from an otherwise dominant attitude towards the disease.

Most reasonably competent students of American politics and history know about the shameful chapter that is the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis. A supposedly liberal politician, one as experienced as Hillary Clinton, should know much better. (The interview linked above shows that Clinton has fairly detailed knowledge of that period at her disposal; she invokes the Brady Bill and stem-cell research as examples of ‘unpopular’ political positions Nancy Reagan took on.) Did she somehow imagine that this aspect of American history has been forgotten? Even more problematically, and this is where a cynical politics becomes acutely visible, did Clinton act on the basis of a calculus that suggested it was perfectly allright to anger the gay community while reaching out to Reaganites? Clinton might have, of course, thought that the folks who were activists in the 1980s had simply died off, leaving no traces of their battles with an uncaring presidential administration. All of these calculations would be very peculiar for a candidate to make in the America of 2016, one which has legalized same-sex marriage.

On a purely electoral reckoning, this incident shows, yet again, an uncomfortable truth: Hillary Clinton is not a very good politician. On a moral reckoning, this is cynicism, pure and simple.

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