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This Week in Freudenfreude: When Republicans Do Good

We don't often get to talk about a Republican (or multiple Republicans) in this space. That is because the modern Republican Party is largely in the control of slimeballs who cater to their voters' basest instincts. Quick, can you name a plank of the GOP, as currently constituted, that involves making the world into a better place in some way? It's all about undoing one thing or another, or protecting turf of one sort or another (financial turf, religious turf, national turf/borders, etc.).

It wasn't always that way, however. There was a time when both parties had ideas about how to move forward in a positive way. They disagreed on priorities, and they disagreed on means, but there is little question that most or all of the pre-Trump Republican presidents had at least some ideas on how to make a better America. And we thought we would discuss two Republican-president-driven successes today.

To start, many readers are following the Women's World Cup right now. And if you watch the games, you see students and graduates from America's universities dominating many matches. Not necessarily on the U.S. team, mind you, which has thus far underwhelmed. No, they're on the teams from New Zealand, Denmark, England, Italy, Japan, Australia, Jamaica, the Phillipines, and many others. Indeed, the team from Canada has more players who played at U.S. schools (22) than the U.S. team does (20). Someone better look into that.

The reason for this, as folks familiar with sports history will know, is Title IX, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972. This was back when Republicans had serious policy proposals related to equality for women (although it should be noted that the bill passed with bipartisan support, and the text was written by conservative Democrat Birch Bayh). Among its provisions, Title IX required equal representation for male and female athletes in college athletic programs. Since (gridiron) football rosters are large, and since there is no women's equivalent, universities were compelled to beef up their women's programs in other sports. Soccer (a.k.a. the other football) was very popular worldwide, but investment in women's sports was not. That meant there were busloads of talent waiting to be plucked around the world, and the American universities availed themselves. To this day, the NCAA is the world's preeminent pre-professional women's soccer organization.

And then there is also something we mentioned last week, namely the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. The rot that has overtaken the Republican Party was already beginning to set in during the George W. Bush years, but Bush the younger did have a few things on his résumé that would do a Dwight D. Eisenhower or a Bush the elder proud, and PEPFAR was definitely one of them. We didn't pay quite as much attention to the program in last week's item as we should have, but reader S.H. in Hanoi, Vietnam, wrote in to rectify the problem:

Just a brief two cents to convey the sad news that PEPFAR stands on a knife's edge. Okay, maybe four cents, but still.

First, just to underscore what you wrote: PEPFAR isn't merely "the single biggest feather in the cap of Bush the Younger," it's almost certainly the most important reason why the HIV epidemic is within range of coming to an end—not HIV in the United States, mind you, but HIV in the entire world. I am not a historian, so take this observation with heaping servings of salt, but I would regard PEPFAR as second only to the Marshall Plan in terms of the most successful U.S. foreign policy, and of using the soft power of the U.S. government to materially improve the lives of tens of millions of people.

PEPFAR simply couldn't have happened without George Bush's vision. His belief in using the force of the U.S. government as a tool for good in the world may have been an abject disaster for Iraq and its neighbors (to say nothing of tens of thousands of U.S. veterans) but PEPFAR was its flip side, and it was instigated mainly by him and a small group of like-minded advisors. Once PEPFAR was set up, it received backing from a broad political coalition, including religious conservatives along with social liberals (which includes people like me who wouldn't have voted for him, then or now). Now in its twentieth year and with a budget of about $7 billion per year, it's hard to estimate the precise number of lives PEPFAR saved, but the answer is easily in the millions and probably in the tens of millions. While other international support for ending the epidemic does exist, PEPFAR remains the largest form of global support for ending HIV, and such international initiatives were established only after the U.S. showed that it could be done. PEPFAR should be a point of pride for every American, taught in schools alongside the landing on the moon as a great achievement of a people. But hardly anyone knows about it.

Now for the really bad news. Within hours of the Freudenfreude piece, The New York Times published an article noting that a rump of Republican members of Congress are determined to kill PEPFAR funding as part of an effort to influence abortion practices overseas. The tactics are similar to the Republican-led brinksmanship of Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who is holding up military promotions until the military bans support for abortion, as well as those of Republican members of the House who are holding up the annual military budget for the same reason. At present, it is their way or the highway, and the PEPFAR program, which has stood for two decades as a testament to bipartisan achievement, may well be scuttled in the coming months.

This could not have happened without the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. The reason why PEPFAR was never a battleground was because abortion was a matter of settled law in the U.S. It's worth noting that PEPFAR isn't even in the business of abortion; the program provides medications to treat HIV. But because some of the local organizations that receive financial support to implement PEPFAR objectives do perform abortions, the entire operation is considered compromised by these Republican politicians. So the endangerment of PEPFAR is yet another one of the unanticipated consequences of Dobbs, and soon, millions may pay for that with their lives.

In addition to the now uncertain fate of PEPFAR, there are other movements that threaten to erase all of the hard-won victories against HIV. Readers of are aware that right-wing movements across the world have championed increasingly hostile policies toward LGBTQ communities, which are disproportionately infected with HIV. The increasing levels of state-sanctioned violence against such communities will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in infections, as men who have sex with men in particular avoid seeking care for fear of incarceration or worse. This has already happened in Uganda, which passed an anti-homosexuality bill two months ago by making sodomy a crime punishable by death, and immediately led to empty HIV clinics upon its passage. Such a bill was only possible with the full-throated support of the very same type of American Christian conservatives who are blocking the PEPFAR legislation in Congress. So we may well be witnessing the high-water mark of the campaign against HIV, whose possible end, to my mind, would be, like so many other things in American political life, an entirely unforced error.

[Full disclosure: a large portion of my job, which I started eight months ago, is supported by PEPFAR funds, so I am not an entirely disinterested observer. That said, I have written previously to bring attention to George Bush and PEPFAR, well before my current position was even available.]

Thanks, S.H., and a rare tip of the freudenfreude cap to the Republican Party. We can but hope that the GOP returns to being a normal political party, ideally soon, as opposed to its current status as a vanguard of fascism.

Have a good weekend, all! (Z)

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