Even from the grave, Nancy Reagan is influencing the race to the White House. In fact, the former first lady may be affecting the Democratic race more than the Republican one. Ever since Hillary Clinton praised Reagan on Friday for "starting a national conversation" about AIDS, the former secretary of state has been roundly mocked and criticized. The "History By Hillary" hashtag swept Twitter. And now it appears that Bernie Sanders is using Clinton's Reagan/AIDS gaffe to his advantage.
On Monday, Sanders unveiled a plan to spark the development of new HIV and AIDS treatments while also increasing the accessibility of drugs and treatments to current patients. Part of the proposal includes creating a $3 billion "prize fund" to "reward medical researchers and developers of medicines based primarily upon the added therapeutic value a new treatment offers and the number of people it benefits," according to Sanders' website. Another key component of Sanders' HIV/AIDS plan would be making HIV/AIDS drugs open to generic competition as soon as they are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Perhaps Sanders had this proposal in his back pocket all along, but it is certainly going to get more attention in light of Clinton's significant flub. The Reagan administration was infamous for ignoring the growth of the AIDS epidemic. There are repeated incidences of Reagan's acting press secretary, Larry Speakes, laughing when the question of AIDS was brought up by the media (and there's a chilling video of the incidences included below).
It's little wonder, then, that Clinton's praise for Nancy Reagan (who, by all accounts, was just as silent on HIV/AIDS as the rest of her husband's administration) shocked and even upset some Americans. Esquire's Charles Pierce wrote that it was "actually worse history than anything said at the GOP debate Thursday night and probably the single dumbest thing she's ever said in public." While that assessment is fairly hyperbolic, one wonders how much Clinton's error will cost her in a Democratic race that's far tighter than most experts initially anticipated.
To Clinton's credit, she apologized for her remarks and owned her error. She tweeted on Friday that she had been mistaken, and "For that, I am sorry."
Sanders already criticized Clinton's remarks about Reagan and HIV/AIDS on Sunday, when he spoke with Jake Tapper on CNN's State of the Union:
There were many, many people who were dying of AIDS, and in fact there was demand all over this country for President Reagan to start talking about this terrible tragedy, and yet he refused to talk about it while the AIDS epidemic was sweeping this country. So I’m not quite sure where Secretary Clinton got her information. I’m glad she apologized, but the truth is it was not President Reagan and Nancy Reagan who were leaders in talking about this issue.
Sanders' new HIV/AIDS proposal certainly seems like a targeted attack against Clinton. However, it is unclear whether it will have a substantial impact on the Vermont senator's odds of winning the Democratic nomination. According to the most recent Gallup polls on what Americans deem the most important problems facing the country, healthcare barely cracks the top five of non-economic problems, and there's no indication that HIV/AIDS treatment stands out within it. Even thought the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released just last month the highly alarming statistic that half of all gay black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, HIV/AIDS treatment hasn't been in the same league as issues like foreign policy, unemployment, or even reproductive rights in terms of what can sway voters on a candidate.
Ironically, the last time U.S. HIV/AIDS treatment was a major election issue was in 1992, when Clinton's husband made it part of his presidential campaign. It was a first for the country when AIDS activists Bob Hattoy and Elizabeth Glaser were featured front and center at the 1992 Democratic National Convention — both of them argued that Clinton would reverse more than a decade of federal neglect towards the disease. As the response to HIV/AIDS has increased and new infections have decreased dramatically (cut by two-thirds from its peak in the 1980s, according to the CDC), the subject of HIV/AIDS treatment in the US has not been a hot-button political issue.
At the same time, that doesn't mean there isn't potential for Sanders to hit Clinton hard on this subject. Part of his success this election has come from questioning Clinton's credentials as a liberal and a progressive. Sanders has hammered Clinton on gay rights, noting that she supported the Defense of Marriage Act, while he was one of only 67 members of the House of Representatives to opposite it. He also opposed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy, which was established under the Clinton presidency.
Even if Sanders' new HIV/AIDS proposal doesn't sway some Clinton voters, it's certainly another headache Clinton doesn't need, especially heading into Super Tuesday 3.