Lessons on Self-Serving Politics From Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan

President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton attend the Dinner Honoring the Nation's Governors on February 22, 1987. (Photo: Reagan Library)President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton attend the Dinner Honoring the Nation’s Governors on February 22, 1987. (Photo: Reagan Library)

Last month, when Hillary Clinton credited Nancy and Ronald Reagan with starting “a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS, she was rebuked even by allies such as Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign, which has endorsed Clinton. Her staff quickly issued an apology. The reality is that Nancy and Ronald Reagan were silent about the HIV/AIDS crisis going on around them and treated it as a joke. The result: The Reagans were complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

While Clinton did probably think that the Reagans were leaders on HIV/AIDS advocacy, she instead said that she intended to talk about the Reagans’ commitment to stem cell and Alzheimer’s disease research. But this also deserves scrutiny. Neither Nancy Reagan nor her husband started a “national conversation” on either Alzheimer’s disease or stem cells by any charitable interpretation.

Alzheimer’s disease was reasonably well known when Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with it in 1994; supporting stem cell research was a mainstream Democratic Party plank when Nancy Reagan spoke favorably of it in 2004.

The Reagans did become interested in both issues after Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s though, and there is an important and obvious point to make about this advocacy: the Reagans’ personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease catalyzed it. Ungenerously, an argument could be made that it was directly in their interest to fund research to find a cure for the disease; generously, one could argue that their experience made them believe that the disease merited more attention than they had previously assigned to it.

It is the job of all politicians everywhere to care and advocate for issues that don’t directly affect them.

It is a common phenomenon for politicians to change their views, or change what they devote their attention to, when something affects them personally. In 2013, Republican Sen. Rob Portman came out in favor of same-sex marriage in large part because he learned that his son is gay. Portman plainly said, “knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.”

Portman’s evolution was widely praised. Separately, former Sen. Alan Simpson in 2013 chastised his male colleagues for their positions on abortion by saying they “shouldn’t even vote on [any abortion-related issue],” ostensibly because cisgender men can never personally experience an abortion directly.

The examples of the Reagans, Portman and Simpson should give pause (as should the countless others, including that of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who decided to support same-sex marriage because his daughter is a lesbian). Politicians are expected to represent different groups of people and understand and empathize with many people’s needs and struggles. Yet in the context of these issues, the Reagans and Portman needed to be personally affected before they understood what other people might experience.

Portman’s evolution is laudable as a personal revelation, but it represents a fundamental failure in terms of his position as a legislator. There was nothing stopping him from imagining what it would be like to have a gay son to understand why gay Ohioans want to marry. Likewise, it should not have taken a personal struggle for the Reagans to understand that Alzheimer’s was worthy of their support. In Simpson’s case, he should clearly see that is also the job of male legislators to protect and uphold reproductive rights.

In short, it is the job of all politicians everywhere to care and advocate for issues that don’t directly affect them, and these examples represent a failure to do that.

After Nancy Reagan died, both Clinton and Bernie Sanders praised her life and her advocacy on stem cell and Alzheimer’s research. While this sort of polite revisionism is expected among politicians and elites, it legitimizes unhelpful ways of thinking. Since most people were not close to Reagan, their assessments of her should be confined to her life as a public figure. This criticism is appropriate and healthy, and should include a fair assessment of, for example, her advocacy, her record on HIV/AIDS and how she spent her time as first lady (mainly working on a failed anti-drug program and supporting her husband’s reactionary administration).

It was an exceedingly easy decision for the Reagans to support Alzheimer’s research and stem cell studies, and it required very little political or social capital. If the Reagans had decided to support these causes based on their own merits — just like if Portman had supported same-sex marriage because he thought it was the right thing to do — it would have served as an example to others and honored the many people who suffer from the underfunding and deprioritization of medical research, or in Portman’s case, discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Instead, personal experiences are used as cover to avoid the worst political or social ramifications of these decisions, which were largely made to keep personal lives consistent with public lives.

Since a strategy for social change can’t be predicated on getting more politicians to have gay children or be close to someone with a terrible disease, those who do seek change should see these examples as cautionary. But when powerful people make politically difficult decisions that, depending on the issue, represent the will of their constituents or something that they know is right, those decisions are more likely to be transformative.

There is not much evidence that Clinton understands either of these points. She chose to support same-sex marriage only when it was politically easy — “farcically late” for a high-profile Democrat like Clinton — and at a time when many were rightly re-evaluating the goals of the movement from the left. The rhetoric and positions of her presidential campaign are also disturbing from this angle. Clinton invokes histories of struggle when convenient but does not recognize that she is on the opposite side of analogous movements today.

For example, she co-opts the legacy of Rosa Parks and the idea of intersectionality, but wants to work with Republicans to destroy the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which fights a similar battle as Parks’. She decries the potential for “violence in politics” as activists are assassinated in Honduras by forces she chose to embolden. She wants to end mass incarceration and racialized policing, though in the past she supported her husband’s efforts to build up the carceral state by using racially coded “tough-on-crime” rhetoric — promising at one point to bring “superpredators” “to heel.”

Creating meaningful and radical change will always be difficult. The Reagans and Clinton are not people from whom we can learn.