December 28, 2007
Ghost of Clinton past and future
Posted by: Chris
There's a valuable lesson to be learned in the welcome news today that President Bush signed a bill that allows the District of Columbia to use its own money to fund needle exchange programs in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Besides the obvious -- that it takes Washington about as long as the Vatican to accept inconvenient scientific facts -- there is also a glimpse of what we can expect if Hillary Clinton manages to become the next president.
Ben Smith at Politico.com noted a month ago that Hillary's campaign proposal for HIV/AIDS policy included federal funding for needle exchange, a policy reversal for her and her husband:
The changed position is worth pausing over because needle exchange was the subject of one of the campaign's most illuminating moments, during a New York City event at which an AIDS activist, Charlie King, pressed Clinton on her husband's rejection of recommendations that the federal government back needle exchange programs. I wrote about the exchange, which was caught on video, in July.
"Well, because we knew we couldn't maintain it politically," Clinton said, and went on to discuss the trade-offs in that dispute with Congress. "I wish life and politics were easier," she said.
King then referred back to Clinton's opening remarks. "You made a great comment earlier about how our next president needs to have some spine," he said.
"We’ll have as much spine as we possibly can, under the circumstances," Clinton responded.
That's classic Hillary: "We'll have as much spine as we possibly can, under the circumstances." It's actually classic Clinton, applying to either Bill or Hillary. And it's exactly why her husband was such a dramatic disappointment on gay issues -- and needle exchange -- as president. Bill Clinton had the opportunity in 1998 to approve federal funding for needle exchange, but instead accepted the recommendation against funding from his conservative Drug Czar, Barry Cafferty.
Four years later, attending an AIDS conference as the former president, Bill Clinton said he regretted how he handled needle exchange, but notice how closely the language -- and the thinking -- tracks that of his wife:
Asked about what he had done to fight AIDS as president, Clinton said: "Do I wish I could have done more? Yes, but I do not know that I could have done it."
In particular, he cited his stance on needle-exchange programs, saying, "I think I was wrong about that; I should have tried harder to do that."
He was referring to his administration's refusal in 1998, after a bitter internal debate, to lift a longstanding ban on federal financing for programs to distribute clean needles to drug addicts, even as top government scientists said such programs did not encourage druge abuse and could save lives. At the time, Clinton's advisers said they feared a political disaster for him if he lifted the ban.
Even acknowledging his error, Bill Clinton was saying the same as Hillary did, that he showed "as much spine as he possibly could, under the circumstances." The real issue -- with him then as with her today -- is whether a Clinton president will risk political capital and show leadership on important social issues.
Witness Bill Clinton on gay issues: He caved on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and never lifted a finger on the Defense of Marriage Act -- except to sign it into law. The same "under the circumstances" spinelessness caused him to cave on needle exchange, as the late Bob Hattoy, an openly gay and HIV-positive official in Clinton's Interior Department, said back in 1998 in an interview with Southern Voice:
"This is worse than 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' because instead of just ruining lives, it can actually kill people. The president was either ill-advised or he decided certain Americans with HIV can just die. This is a very sad day for a president who wanted to have any kind of moral authority."
Expect more of the same from Hillary Clinton; she even signals as much. Some five years after her husband acknowledged that he erred in not fighting for needle exchange funding, Hillary was still too cautious and calculating to acknowledge as much.
Now that she's finally come around on needle exchange, no doubt because primary opponents Barack Obama and John Edwards favor federal funding, the whole timeline shows what Ben Smith called her philosophy of governing: "You can call [it] pragmatism and readiness; or too much caution, too little vision. Certainly, Hillary seems to lack Obama's confidence in the ability of a President to shape public opinion, and to lead against it."
On gay rights, that means Hillary would sign the easy stuff -- hate crimes and employment non-discrimination, and maybe even a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- but don't except anything else from a Clinton II presidency -- whether one or two terms -- unless absolutely no leadership or political risk is required.
*Billary pic courtesy of the clever folks at FreakingNews.com.
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