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Notable Only in Its Absence: Third-Party Presidential Candidates' Nonexistent HIV Policies

In a Presidential Election Characterized by Dissatisfaction With the Status Quo, Why Are Third-Party Candidates Silent on HIV?

September 17, 2016

What constitutes victory for a third-party candidate in a U.S. presidential election? Surely, the simplest answer is electoral triumph. Ask Gary Johnson or Jill Stein this question and their replies would acknowledge that, while the odds are stacked against them, they could win in November if only the American people would divert their eyes from the tired spectacle of the bipartisan electoral process. 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 her followers allow reality and expectation to diverge too greatly, that confidence can be categorized only as delusion. There is a gray area in which the irrational confidence of a campaign can be chalked up to exuberance, but it is safe to say that both the Libertarian and Green presidential candidates are nowhere near it. With Gary Johnson and Jill Stein polling at less than 9% and 4%, respectively, in four-way race two months from Election Day, anyone who sincerely believes that either candidate can win the White House in November is living in an alternate reality.

After accepting that electoral victory is not possible, two distinct types of victory can be sought: victory for principle and victory for party. Historically, successful third-party presidential runs have usually fallen within the first category, with candidates representing political parties that fought hard for a particular issue and then faded away. By and large, the most noteworthy third-party presidential runs centered on racial issues, with six of the ten higher third-party vote-getters belonging to short-lived groups such as the Free-Soil Party, the Know-Nothing Party 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 notwithstanding. 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 that have a vision equal in scope to that of the Republicans and Democrats. Whether or not that conception is firmly grounded in reality, both Johnson and Stein are fighting for a sense of legitimacy from the punditry and the public just as much as 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 the aim of removing the toxic label of spoiler that is so often applied to American third-party candidates and showing that they're planning to stick around for more than a cup of coffee.

However, to enter the mainstream of U.S. politics, Stein and Johnson have to leave their comfort zones. Even more than the two major-party candidates, they must publicly address an array of policies that speak to the needs of a diverse American electorate and, at the very least, show familiarity and competence with issues that might not appeal directly to their base but would allow their parties to expand outside the ideologically narrow bubbles they currently occupy.

In this presidential election, when 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. At the time of writing, neither Johnson nor Stein have mentioned HIV in their campaign platforms and, when they have spoken about HIV in interviews or on social media, it was in support an issue that resonated with their base. For Gary Johnson, this means using lowered HIV transmission as a reason to support harm reduction policies such as syringe access programs. For Jill Stein, like Bernie Sanders, this means acknowledging the need to make HIV medication affordable within the confines of the larger discussion on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and the general lack of affordable, generic drugs.

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 reflect the amount of influence each candidate would have in the unlikely event of their election. After 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 in many respects become 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 major party candidates such as Hillary Clinton, this paucity of resources is no excuse for a lack of effort and understanding. 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 U.S., so it shouldn't be too much to ask them to brush up 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 platforms and approaches to governance would benefit every American, not just those whose needs neatly align with the issues the candidates are passionate about. The future of both the Libertarian and the Green parties depends not on strengthening their bonds with the small subset of the population who naturally identifies with their messages, but on expanding their spheres of influence to include portions of the electorate who are currently unaware of or unimpressed with what their parties have to offer.

For a candidate like Gary Johnson, this means demonstrating to people living with HIV and those that advocate on their behalf that a Libertarian approach focused on decentralizing the federal government, which funds the bulk of the programs that serve them, would be to their benefit. For a candidate like Jill Stein, this is an opportunity to show how a foreign policy that drastically reduced foreign military interventions and substantially increased programs that address HIV-related issues could significantly improve diplomatic relations in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.

The task of garnering support from previously untapped sections of the population within the broader HIV community is not an easy one, but it is necessary for the candidacies of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein to become serious political movements beyond 2016. If Johnson and Stein want to be treated as more than protest candidates, they need to act accordingly. Releasing a well-articulated HIV/AIDS policy plank wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Drew Gibson is a social worker and freelance writer based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @SuppressThis or visit his blog "Virally Suppressed," which covers a multitude of issues related to public health and social justice.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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