Any politician running for president could submit for public consideration a 500-page document proposing the most deranged policy on earth, and it wouldn’t summon as much outcry as a single gaffe. This is because gaffes are also, conveniently, soundbites; it’s also because gaffes provide the opportunity to charge that a politician is not only wrong-minded, but stupid and incompetent. This is true across the political spectrum, and no politician or party is burdened by our vulturous lust for gaffes any more than the next.
So it was, for instance, when Hillary Clinton seemed to say in an Iowa town hall last month that she would close down more than 50 percent of America’s public schools—and then perhaps 50 percent of that culled herd, and so on and so forth, Zeno’s-paradox style, until not a single American school remained open. Was this really what Clinton said? Not exactly. She said, “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job,” referring to a unique provision in Iowa state law that she went on to specify she would have little, if any, federal control over as president.
A fair-minded person might wonder if Clinton’s remarks on Iowa schools reflect her views on education in a more cosmic sense. This would at least be a smarter line of inquiry than the one concerning an obviously ridiculous plan to rid the nation of schooling, and a more revealing one to boot. And the answer—crucially—wouldn’t necessarily exonerate her. Clinton’s relationship with teachers’ unions as first lady of Arkansas was frictious thanks in part to a teacher-testing bill that irked the state’s educators; but she has since earned endorsements from major teachers’ unions like the National Education Association, and earned the ire of the school-choice crowd with disparaging remarks about public charter schools. Her record, in other words, is mixed: The opposite of a gaffe is not a remark that everyone likes and agrees on, but a clearly understood and fairly interpreted remark.
Today’s gaffe frenzy came to us courtesy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has never been known for a particularly delicate or subtle verbal style. Speaking last night to Rachel Maddow on her eponymous MSNBC show, Sanders fielded a question about why he hasn’t earned the endorsements of organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and others. Here’s what he said:
“I would love to have the endorsement of every progressive organization in America. We’re very proud to have received recently the endorsement of MoveOn.org. We’ve received the endorsement Democracy for America. These are grassroots organizations representing millions of workers. … What we are doing in this campaign, it just blows my mind every day because I see it clearly, we’re taking on not only Wall Street and economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment. ... So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund and Planned Parenthood. But, you know what? Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
Sanders was instantly taken to mean that Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are part of the nefarious political cabal he intends to dismantle; the Human Rights Campaign characterized Sanders’s remarks as an attack, and Planned Parenthood protested that it cannot be a part of the “establishment” since “we fight like hell to protect women’s health.”
First things first: If Sanders set out to declare war on the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood, and others, it was a terrifically strange move to open his comments by wishing for their endorsements. They are, after all, among the “progressive organization[s]” he was referring to when he approached the subject at Maddow’s prompting. And it would’ve been even more bizarre for Sanders to note that he has “friends and supporters” inside Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (which he mistakenly called the “Human Rights Fund”) if his ultimate point was that these organizations stand in need of destruction. And, while Sanders designating MoveOn.org and Democracy for America as “grassroots”—perhaps in contrast to Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign—surely rankled some, “grassroots” is not synonymous with “good,” and Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are each among the largest and most influential organizations of their kind.
So what was Sanders getting at, if he wasn’t expressing a sudden seizure of reactionary sentiment? It appears to me he was reiterating what he has said about his candidacy all along—that his success is atypical because of his reliance on grassroots funding and support instead of major donors, PACs, or influential endorsements from prominent groups. His mistake was presuming it would be clear that he recognizes the existence of an “establishment” that is progressive; in any other circumstance, most liberals would likely have agreed with the abstract idea that there are certain institutions that act as gatekeepers of mainstream progressive thoughts and priorities, which is why internal disagreements among progressives are totally ordinary.
One might argue that those institutions, like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, are good gatekeepers of liberal thought and priorities, and that the role they play in endorsing candidates and policies is a positive one that improves leftward politics. One might also advance the idea that institutions with a stake in sticking around are wise to throw their weight behind the candidate they view as the likeliest to succeed. What Sanders was saying, I believe, was that his campaign hasn’t operated according to that procedure, in part because he himself is not an establishment candidate whose election is considered likely if not certain.
Sanders was not impugning the services offered by Planned Parenthood or the work done by the Human Rights Campaign. In fact, Sanders’s campaign responded to the Human Rights Campaign’s announcement that it is backing Clinton by arguing, “It’s understandable and consistent with the establishment organizations voting for the establishment candidate, but it’s an endorsement that cannot possibly be based on the facts and the record”—a reference to Sanders’s long record of supporting LGBT rights. Nor was he attempting to imply that the organizations he clearly labeled as progressive are somehow conservative by nature of their influence in the liberal political arena.
Reasonable people can, of course, disagree on whether or not Sanders’s approach to politics is strategic or naive, useful or dangerous. But that’s all secondary now, and to nobody’s real benefit.