Among Republicans, there’s a broad understanding that the party’s “establishment” is not well liked among the GOP’s grassroots activists. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have risen the top of the polls at least in part because of their hostility towards Republican insiders and leaders. At many far-right gatherings, the easiest way to hear boos is to mention John Boehner’s or Mitch McConnell’s names.
It’s reached the point at which even the most establishment figures in GOP politics, including officials like Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), say things like, “I’m personally very offended to be called the ‘establishment.’”
But among Democrats, it’s a very different story. Rank-and-file Dems, for example, remain highly supportive of President Obama. No one ever boos Nancy Pelosi at progressive events. Major membership organizations that share many Democratic goals tend to be celebrated, not derided, in center-left circles.
And with this in mind, there was an interesting exchange on the show last night when Rachel asked Bernie Sanders about Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Human Rights Campaign officially endorsing Hillary Clinton’s campaign over his own. “Are you competing for those groups’ endorsements and not getting them, or are you not trying to get them?” Rachel asked. The senator responded:
“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.”
In context, Sanders misspoke when he referenced the Human Rights Fund instead of the Human Rights Campaign.
Regardless, there’s certainly some truth to the senator’s pitch: Sanders is a very different kind of candidate, who operates outside the usual power structures. Indeed, Sanders is an independent running in a Democratic primary.
But his strategy, especially as articulated last night, is not without risks.
In this case, Sanders characterized some of the nation’s most prominent organizations committed to progressive goals – reproductive rights and LGBT rights – as part of an “establishment” he’s “taking on.”
There are no doubt plenty of Republican voters who like Ted Cruz’s willingness to confront Mitch McConnell, but it’s unclear just how many Democratic voters are eager to rally behind a candidate willing to confront NARAL and HRC. On the contrary, many of these institutions are quite popular, especially on the left.
In last night’s interview, Sanders added he hopes to win by “rallying the grassroots,” instead of relying on “the establishment.” The trouble is, many progressive voters who work with progressive organizations believe they are the grassroots.
It didn’t take long for Hillary Clinton to see an opportunity and shine a light on Sanders’ comments. The former Secretary of State tweeted, “Really Senator Sanders? How can you say that groups like @PPact and @HRC are part of the ‘establishment’ you’re taking on?”
This morning, the president of NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign itself expressed disappointment with Sanders’ argument.
It’ll be worth watching today to see if the senator feels the need to walk this one back.
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she had no role in this piece, and she was not involved in the group’s endorsement process.