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Clinton Campaign Manufactured Controversy Around Sanders’ Planned Parenthood Comments

During an interview in January with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Bernie Sanders suggested Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign did not endorse him because they were “part of the establishment.” Since Hillary Clinton has been around for a “very, very long time,” he said it made sense the groups would support her. The Clinton campaign saw this as an opening, and according to emails published by WikiLeaks, staff pounced.

The political machine developed a strategy that involved mobilizing around the #ImSoEstablishment hashtag on social media, recruiting progressive bloggers to write pieces for the campaign, and indirectly working through Planned Parenthood to strike devastating blows against Sanders by making his comments appear insensitive to women and their reproductive rights. The campaign decided to prolong the controversy, since it was in their interest.

On January 20, Teddy Goff, who previously led President Barack Obama’s digital operation, advised, “I think Sanders has handed us a rare and significant gift with his comments. Per our tracking, there have been 11,000 tweets on this (you can’t track Facebook chatter easily because the vast majority of accounts are private) just since late last night, and the pace is actually picking up.”

“For reference, our Alzheimer’s rollout generated fewer than 15,000 tweets over the course of a few days — so this has nearly equaled that in a little more than 12 hours,” Goff added.

Lauren Peterson, director of content and creative, indicated shortly after Goff’s email that the campaign was working with Planned Parenthood and people, who could “help push this behind the scenes without our fingerprints.” They worked with Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Clinton to amplify and respond to Sanders’s remarks, as well as anything else he said in response to criticism.

As stated in the email, Planned Parenthood’s response was “from the independent side, not coordinated.” Peterson wrote, “They have told us they are planning to do more but can’t tell us what.”

The campaign pushed out content with the #ImSoEstablishment hashtag through Clinton, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and a “diverse array of bloggers and progressive people out in the world.” Shonda Rhimes, Ricky Martin, and Julianne Moore, each considered “non-political surrogates,” were enlisted to respond.

More remarkably, the campaign coordinated with bloggers and columnists to create the perception that Sanders’s comments were racist or detrimental to women. As Peterson put it, they were asked to “write about this from a racial justice and reproductive rights perspective, including a few people who joined us on a call to talk about the “Bernie Backlash” that was unfolding even before his remarks last night.”

Peterson named Sady Doyle, Gabe Ortiz, Elianne Ramos, Jamil Smith, and Aminatou Sow, as writers who were urged to publish pieces that would be helpful to the campaign. Jessica Valenti, according to Peterson, already was in the process of writing a column on the matter.

The Hillary For America website’s column, “The Briefing,” posted twice over the next week about Sanders’s remarks. On January 21, it suggested Sanders “continued criticism of key progressive groups.” It noted the Sanders campaign did not immediately back away from these comments.

Tad Devine, a strategist for the Sanders campaign, told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, “I think the leadership of Washington-based groups and it’s not just those two, you know, are part of a political establishment here in Washington.”

The post indicated “progressives and reporters noticed” Planned Parenthood and other groups were unhappy with Sanders’s comments. It acknowledged Smith wrote, “The trap Sanders falls into here is a common one that has plagued him throughout this campaign.” It acknowledged tweets from Smith, Sow, and Ortiz.

Later, on January 25, “The Briefing” quoted a tweet from Sow, which suggested, “Bernie calling PP ‘the establishment’ is very revealing but not surprising. Bernie bros generally [show] zero interest in women’s/repro issues.” Another tweet from Ortiz declared, “Wow. This is something I’d expect from Marco Rubio, not someone campaigning for the Democratic nomination.”

However, as the email published by WikiLeaks shows, they did not merely “notice” these remarks. The machinery of the Clinton campaign encouraged these particular bloggers to react so they would have content to push out to media and the public.

The Guardian published Valenti’s piece, “Bernie Sanders must deliver more than platitudes about women,” which the campaign referenced. She wrote, “It’s a bad look for Sanders, and one that underestimates just how important reproductive rights are to voters.”

It contained no mention of the fact that the campaign sought to influence or encouraged Valenti to write the column.

Sanders has a 100% lifetime rating from Planned Parenthood. Similarly, NARAL gives him a 100% rating.

Throughout the election, the Clinton made use of Medium.com to push out strategic messaging. NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue posted on January 21, “#ImSoEstablishment: Why words (and the absence of them) matter.”

Progressive groups, directly and indirectly, attacked Sanders over his single-payer healthcare plan, explicitly accusing him of forgetting about women’s reproductive rights. They also encouraged members to personalize the attacks instead of confronting their role in the Democratic Party establishment, which so often co-opts grassroots energy or compromises on policies way before necessary.

What unfolded over those five days represents an example of what could potentially happen during another Clinton administration. If political leaders and grassroots organizations object to the incrementalism of any progressive groups and writers coordinating with President Hillary Clinton, they will face the wrath of this machine.

Still from CSPAN broadcast of 2016 presidential debate.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."