This past March, when Secretary Clinton temporarily lost her grip on reality and praised Nancy Reagan for opening a national dialogue on AIDS, the Sanders camp had a sizable opening to squeeze in and gain support from those HIV/AIDS activists and LGBT groups who have had long relationships with Clinton and little direct contact with the Senator from Vermont.
The driving force behind the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has been his supporters' firm belief that he is above the fray of traditional Beltway politics. In this year of the anti-establishment candidate, Sanders has used his lifelong opposition to what he frequently terms "the billionaire class" and the large institutions it controls to paint himself as the champion of the American "everyman" in a rigged battle against the powerful and the corrupt. The imagery used by the Sanders campaign to portray its man as a virtuous rogue actor in a political system gone amuck, along with policies and speeches that are laser-focused on swapping corporate greed for more egalitarian wealth distribution, has helped Sanders reach political heights that were unthinkable a year ago.
Given that much of their primary playbook has been devoted to wooing progressive and special interest groups away from Hillary Clinton's well-oiled political machine, the campaign's optimal two-step game plan for how to best capitalize on the Clinton HIV gaffe could have been simple and straightforward:
First, Bernie would have hit the airwaves, pillorying Hillary for her offensive and inexplicable remarks, challenging her commitment to fight on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS and positioning himself as the more attractive alternative. Then the Sanders campaign would have set up a meeting with prominent HIV/AIDS activists, publicly displaying his support for people living with HIV and assuring the activists that this would be the start of a mutually beneficial relationship lasting into his presidency.
The Sanders campaign got the first part down pat, but failed spectacularly on the second.
After castigating Clinton in the media for her fallacious remarks about Nancy Reagan's role in the AIDS crisis, the Sanders campaign cancelled a meeting with HIV/AIDS activists at the 11th hour, without explanation. For a short time it looked as if no meeting would happen at all. Then, Sanders' people set up a meeting for May 25, while the Senator was campaigning for the all important June 7 California primary.
The get-together initially seemed to be a success. In a press release from the HIV/AIDS group Health GAP directly afterwards, the meeting was put in a positive light, highlighting Senator Sanders' opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and support for more affordable HIV medications. However, that good will was short lived.
The Sanders campaign then put out a press release entitled, "Sanders Backs California Ballot Initiative to Rein in Drug Prices at Meeting With HIV/AIDS Advocates." On the surface, this might seem like a fairly benign title, but the release was criticized for the focus on an initiative that was neither broadly supported by the meeting participants, nor by many key California HIV/AIDS advocates and organizations.
The ballot initiative, The California Drug Price Relief Act, would regulate drug prices by requiring California state agencies to pay the same amount of money for drugs as the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, which the Act's supporters claim currently pays less than California's Medicaid system. However, the actual financial impact of the act is unknown, and the wording of the initiative has given pause to many HIV/AIDS organizations in the state.
The implication of the Sanders press release -- that those advocates who attended the meeting agreed with the Senator's stance on the Act -- was not well received, especially by HIV/AIDS activist Peter Staley, who made his feelings on the matter known in a series of tersely worded Facebook posts.
"Our agenda was to back up the California groups on campaign access," Staley told TheBody.com. "To have a press release come out where it was suggested that the meeting was about endorsing the initiative ... we just felt used by his campaign."
Following the release of Staley's Facebook posts, the HIV/AIDS activists involved wrote an an open letter to Senator Sanders, challenging his characterization of the meeting. The Sanders campaign went on the offensive, with senior policy advisor Warren Gunnels sending out an accusation-laden reply e-mail and posting a Tweet claiming that Staley had "made a fortune from big drug companies."
As support, Gunnels linked to a press release from a group called Californians for Lower Drug Prices, which receives its funding from the primary initiative backer, AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The tweet has since been deleted, but it and the e-mail are indicative of why Senator Sanders has excelled at movement building, but has had much less success at forming fruitful relationships with other politicians, activists and special interest groups.
In his reply e-mail to Staley and the other HIV/AIDS activists, Warren Gunnels noted that the big pharmaceutical companies are expected to spend up to $100 million dollars fighting the California Drug Price Relief Act and wrote, "That fact alone is a major reason why we will continue to do everything we can to support this important initiative." There is no disputing that the big drug companies are going all out to oppose the California Drug Price Relief Act, as they've already spent more than $59 million fighting the measure, but that fact alone doesn't mean it's a worthwhile initiative or that everyone who isn't in favor of it is corrupt.
"None of us here are in opposition to the initiative," said Anne Donnelly, the director of Health Care Policy for the San Francisco-based HIV advocacy group Project Inform. "We've taken a neutral position on the matter because the initiative is so vague that's it's impossible to analyze responsibly, but it does raise concerns. All we were trying to do is convey those concerns to the Sanders campaign."
Unfortunately, it seems as if those concerns remain unheard by the Sanders campaign, with substantive discussion on the ballot initiative eschewed in favor of broadsides accusing HIV/AIDS activists of being beholden to Big Pharma. The Sanders campaign's fervent support of the California initiative and denunciation of those who are unsure about it shows the campaign's inability or unwillingness to step down from its ideological perch and engage in dialogue with HIV/AIDS community stakeholders. This tendency is as politically damaging as it is unnecessary.
All Senator Sanders had to do to curry greater favor with HIV/AIDS activists was to meet with them and listen to their concerns, reinforcing that fighting HIV/AIDS would be a Sanders administration priority. That was it, and he couldn't do it. He didn't even come close.