The memo, although denounced as a fabrication, was nevertheless taken very seriously. It outlined a political strategy for using AIDS in the 1988 congressional and state legislative campaigns.
"This is the plan for the Garamendi campaign," the memo said, referring to state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove). "We shall make contact with various pro-life, family-value organizations and have them launch campaigns. . . . Attacking Garamendi as pro-abortion, pro-gay and therefore pro-AIDS might prove to be easy."
Citing a congressional district, the memo added, "If we are low-key, logical sounding and stressing the importance of 'protecting' families from the disease, then we could find ourselves in excellent shape in '88."
A Sober Appraisal
The purported author of the Sept. 17 memo, Republican consultant Charles Rund of San Francisco, said he did not write it. But the memo--with an attached GOP target list of 54 congressional Democrats that Rund said he did assemble for another purpose--launched a sober appraisal in Sacramento and Washington of whether AIDS could be used as a partisan issue in next year's campaigns.
Congressional Democrats in districts where their party is marginal, in particular, wanted to know how they could head off a feared effort by the conservative right to paint them as "soft on AIDS." Though there is some confusion over what that language means, it seems to describe those who differ with conservatives over such issues as mandatory testing and the disclosure of test results.
Because the disease first made inroads in the United States in the homosexual community, there also is an effort on the political right to cast AIDS in terms of morality.
"If I can't get your attention on a moral or ethical basis on how humans are to express their human sexuality, perhaps I can get your attention on the basis of a personal or public health issue," said the openly anti-homosexual Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), the leading proponent of this line of thinking. "Because the genus of this epidemic is anyone in our society who is promiscuous or perverse in their sexual practices."
Warning by Dannemeyer
In the wake of the controversy raised by the debunked memo, Dannemeyer warned Democrats on the floor of the House on Nov. 9 that there was a "measure of truth" in the memo "with respect to a Republican plan to attack a select group of congressional incumbents in 1988 as being soft on AIDS."
Although Dannemeyer called AIDS "a major political issue" in the upcoming elections, political consultants and pollsters for both parties agree that, at least in the presidential elections, AIDS is not likely to surface as a decisive issue.
When Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, in a recent debate, said, "We may all agree to keep AIDS out of the political arena in 1988," he found no disagreement among candidates of either party. All support funding for research and education. All but two, Democrats Jesse Jackson and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, support mandatory testing of some groups, such as immigrants and prisoners.
"It's the kind of issue people (presidential candidates) are going to have to talk about, but it's going to be me-tooism," said Richard Murray, University of Houston political scientist. Murray has conducted polls on AIDS and found the public deeply divided on how to respond to the epidemic, indicating that presidential candidates have little to gain and much to lose by making AIDS a focus. "It's a dangerous issue, like the disease," he said.
Could Enter Into Debate
But at the legislative and congressional level, AIDS could enter into the debate.
"It could be a deciding factor in a few places if someone effectively manipulates the political argument," said Peggy Connolly of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which held briefings on AIDS in the wake of the debunked GOP memo. "This is definitely one that everybody should watch."
Republicans like Dannemeyer argue that Democrats, because of their political ties to the homosexual community, have hesitated in enacting vitally needed legislation to stem the epidemic. Since they control Congress and the state Legislature, that makes Democrats vulnerable to AIDS as a campaign issue, they said.
"Since they have welcomed the leadership of the male homosexual community into their political tent . . . then they have the privilege of accounting for that action," Dannemeyer said.
GOP pollster Gary Lawrence of Santa Ana said AIDS can be used positively or negatively.
"If you are the kind of politician who wants to gain mileage by bashing at the other side, you'll have a certain amount of success," Lawrence said. "It's up to you whether you want to be a statesman about it or a demagogue."
'Chastity and Monogamy'