Race Alive in Split Verdict

It was a startlingly candid exchange between two journalists working for the same broadcasting behemoth, but it neatly framed the ludicrous bed that the mainstream media made for itself in the five frenzied days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Chris Matthews, nearly spitting with pique that New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had defied his expectations for Tuesday, was struggling to say something that would give his MSNBC viewers a reason to keep tuning in to him. Tom Brokaw, from a different studio in the NBC complex, broke in to say simply that journalists need to “wait for the voters to make their judgment.”

Media Sheep-Like, Then Sheepish; Health Advocates Press Issues

Matthews shot back sarcastically, asking what they were supposed to do in the days leading up to each primary – “stay home?”

At which point the adult in the conversation replied with the novel suggestion that instead reporters ought to think about examining the positions the candidates have taken on the issues.

It was a breath of fresh air, after five days of nonsense about “the end of the Clintons,” about the Obama “moment”-a heretofore unobserved political phenomenon against which there is apparently no adequate counterattack by rivals – about a goofy New York Times Week in Review cover story positing a post-Blue State/ Red State America, and about precisely what a little moisture in Hillary's eyes and a couple of cracks in her voice portended.

Fortunately, the voters of New Hampshire had other things on their minds. They delivered first-place finishes in both the Republican and Democratic contests to also-rans from Iowa.

And amidst the crush of TV cameras and town hall meetings up and down the Granite State this past weekend, there were nearly three-dozen advocates for health care reform, including a number long known for their work on HIV/ AIDS, who did a remarkable job of getting their concerns before the candidates, the voters, and the wider world watching at home.

Not surprisingly, their degree of success varied according to party. Both Clinton and John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina, engaged in lengthy explanations of why they are not prepared to embrace a single-payer plan as part of their commitment to universal care. Barack Obama, the Illinois senator, talked about his support for needle exchange, even if he was more tentative than he has been elsewhere.

On the Republican side, an exchange with Arizona Senator John McCain proved testy, even acrimonious, and despite winning a pledge from Rudy Giuliani on global AIDS spending, the activists just hours later found the former New York mayor practically running away from them on a snowy path.

And, in the proud tradition of AIDS activism, at least one of the exchanges could fairly be called a zap – with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on the receiving end.

The activists were in New Hampshire Saturday and Sunday from nearby Northeastern states, representing groups committed to better AIDS treatment and services, universal, affordable health care for all Americans, and global access to the therapies that have made AIDS a far more manageable medical challenge in the US over the past decade.

Participating organizations included ACT UP/New York, the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), Housing Works, the Student Global AIDS Campaign, the Health Global Access Project (Health GAP), the Private Health Insurance Must Go Coalition, and the American Medical Students Association.

Some of the activists' exchanges with the candidates were captured on audio or video tape that was shared with Gay City News.

In detailed, friendly, and productive back-and-forths with Clinton at a high school in Nashua and with Edwards at a Lebanon high school, Eric Sawyer and John Riley, both longtime ACT UPers, pressed the Democrats on why their plans to deliver health care to the 40 million-plus Americans who currently cannot afford it do not rely on a Canadian-style single-payer system. Without that mechanism, the activists argued, the government lacks the market power to exact cost savings from drug companies who now recoup excessive profits.

Riley talked about a friend living with HIV, but not AIDS, whose insurance company will not cover the $1,000/week-cost of the human growth hormone needed to combat his wasting syndrome.

Clinton and Edwards both noted that their plans would allow Americans to opt for a government-run choice, Medicare, or keep their existing private plan, and argued that they would end the Bush administration policy of not permitting the government health program to bargain for lower prices from the pharmaceutical industry.

At the same time, undoubtedly mindful of the quagmire Clinton found herself in when she headed up the health reform effort in her husband's first term, both she and Edwards emphasized that their plans retained “choice” for consumers.

“I don't think most Americans want only one choice in healthcare,” Clinton told Sawyer. “That's not how we operate. We like choices in America and if we get the health insurance companies to have to provide health care prevention services, where they have to cover everybody, where they can't discriminate against you, we're going to be able to get the costs down and the quality up.”

In response to another question on a single-payer system, Clinton said that if Congress were to come up with an alternative she considered “workable,” “of course I would sign it, but I don't think that will happen.”

Edwards, claiming he had “nothing against” a single-payer approach, said his plan could evolve in that direction if that's what Americans chose, but also noted that at another town hall meeting he had been met by one questioner demanding the Canadian system, another denouncing it, saying a cousin there waited six months for an MRI.

“That's a perfect example of the divisions that exist in this country,” Edwards said. “We need to get this done and get this done quickly. It may get to a single-payer plan. But I don't want to spend the next 15 years doing what we've been doing since 1993.”

A statement coming out of the Clinton meeting in Nashua won praise from the activists. Aaron Boyle, also an ACT UP/New York member, in an exchange captured on CNN, pressed Clinton on whether she would co-sponsor Senate Resolution 241 that reaffirms the US commitment to the Doha Declaration, a trade agreement that promotes access to affordable generic medicines in the world's developing nations. Since successful therapies emerged a decade ago, there has been sharp conflict between treatment activists and the pharmaceutical industry over what drug manufacturers say is a critical intellectual property/ research and development issue. The Bush administration is widely seen as sympathetic and helpful to industry efforts to curb inexpensive generic alternatives.

“I supported the Doha Declaration and I will support a re-affirmation of the Doha Declaration,” Clinton told Boyle. “Yes. I will… One of the stumbling blocks has been the difficulty of us getting the price of the drugs low enough so that poor countries could afford them and then distribute them to their people. And the principal reason for the obstacle has been our pharmaceutical industry. It has been a battle to try to get costs down. We've gotten them down slowly. But they are not low enough and, therefore, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are denied these life-saving interventions.”

According to the activists tracking the candidates, they were less successful in engaging Obama in extended conversations, eliciting only a general comment from him about his support for needle exchange. In a quick chat on a reception line following a town hall meeting, the Illinois Democrat would not specifically commit to ending the ban on federal funding of such HIV prevention efforts, despite the fact that he had pledged to do so in response to aidsvote.org's recent candidate survey.

All of the Democrats in this year's race have taken that step, a position Clinton first spelled out in an interview with this reporter in 2000. At that time, she was breaking with the policy of her husband's administration then still in office.

At a Nashua house party on Saturday, Jennifer Flynn, managing director for Health GAP and the former NYCAHN executive director, won agreement from Rudy Giuliani for the first time to support $50 billion in funding over the next five years for the Presidential Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

That evening, a group of the activists made their way into a party for Giuliani loyalists at a Manchester reception hall. Apparently wishing to get the former mayor's commitment to Flynn on tape, Health GAP's Kaytee Riek asked him to pose for a picture with her when he was making his way out at the end of the evening. As Rudy preened for the camera, Riek thanked him for the commitment, to which he muttered, “Yeah, we did a long time ago,” and then took flight down the snowy driveway. His retreat prompted chants of, “People with AIDS are dying, and you're not even trying.”

An encounter with McCain turned even edgier. Using the same chant on the GOP New Hampshire frontrunner at a Salem town meeting, the activists were met first with acerbic come-backs from McCain-“The tradition of a town hall meeting is that we treat each other with respect,” and “You can't be from New Hampshire, young lady”-and then ejection.

But the Straight Talk Express quickly relented and the activists were invited back in. When Riek asked whether McCain would support direct funding to local AIDS groups on the ground in Zimbabwe to get around a corrupt government, the candidate curtly replied, “I don't believe there are community organizations in Zimbabwe that are functioning effectively. If you can find the one that is I will be happy to try and assist.” He soon added, “And I don't need to hear from you much any more.”

It was Sunday evening, at a Manchester restaurant where Huckabee was celebrating after his appearance in the Fox News debate, where the activists undoubtedly had the most fun. As his colleagues started clinking their glasses, Sawyer called out to the candidate asking if he could offer a toast.

“As a Christian whose faith is very important to me, I want to toast to Mike Huckabee, the only politician with the courage to stand up for Christian values,” Sawyer began. Before long, though, he got to the point.

“It hurts me as a person of faith, who is one of your supporters, because of the fact that years ago you said that people like me, people with AIDS, should be quarantined and if I was quarantined I could not vote for you.”

Interrupting, Huckabee thanked Sawyer for coming, but the activist got the last word: “And, and I, I hope you; I hope you will revisit that statement.”

According to a press release from Housing Works, activists affiliated with the Campaign to End AIDS (www.C2EA.org) will arrive by car caravans from more than a dozen states in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on January 21 for a Democratic presidential debate to be held there in advance of that state's primary.