Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Clinton holds 5-point lead over Trump Poll: Voters don't trust media fact-checkers San Diego newspaper endorses Clinton MORE is defending her role as the “establishment candidate” against rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton's 'superpredators' comment most damaging by either candidate It's Bernie Sanders vs. Gary Johnson for millennial votes States urged to bolster election security MORE with only 10 days to go before the Iowa caucuses.
The Clinton counter-attack, backed aggressively by liberal interest groups, comes as she and Sanders battle furiously ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, where some polls show Sanders rising ahead of the presumed Democratic frontrunner.
It’s an effective line of attack in a tumultuous year that has seen political outsider Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: Clinton holds 5-point lead over Trump Poll: Voters don't trust media fact-checkers San Diego newspaper endorses Clinton MORE dominate the Republican race for the White House.
But Sanders might have crossed a bridge too far in arguing that Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign had backed Clinton because they are all “part of the establishment.”
Planned Parenthood in particular is under constant attack from Republicans, so many liberals were incensed that a Democratric presidential candidate would do anything but publicly defend the abortion provider.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, published an op-ed on Medium taking Sanders to task for grouping the liberal groups with the larger special interests that Sanders is fighting.
“The meaning of the word “establishment” has taken on new life in the last 36 hours,” wrote Hogue, who blasted Sanders for a health plan that she said did not mention women or reproductive health. She called Sanders a “great man” but said the absences matter.
“He fights for so many things we believe in, but he’s not the champion we need in this perilous moment for women and families,” she wrote.
Clinton supporters went on a social media offensive Wednesday night, using #ImSoEstablishment to defend Clinton and lambast Sanders.
Sanders walked back the comments Thursday evening, saying he did not intend to call the groups “establishment.”
“No. They aren’t. They’re standing up and fighting the important fights that have to be fought,” he told NBC News.
Sanders added he specifically meant to refer to the groups’ endorsement decisions. He said Clinton’s campaign was trying to take him out of context.
“We’re a week out in the election, and the Clinton people will try to spin these things,” he said.
Democratic strategist Craig Varoga said it “was a mistake” for Sanders.
“It will be used against him as I am sure his consultants are well aware,” Varoga said. “I expect to see his campaign try to soften those remarks and walk them back in the next couple of days.”
Neil Sroka, the spokesman for Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders, dismissed the dust-up — while noting that groups firing shots for Clinton are behind her campaign.
“It’s hard to see this as anything more than just a smart political move by organizations backing Bernie’s opponent in primary,” Sroka said. “I don’t fault people for looking to score political points. If the tables were turned I’d try to do the same thing. The important point here is that on the issues of abortion rights and LBGT equality, there is no daylight between the candidates.”
It is difficult, to say the least, for Clinton to run as anything other than an establishment candidate.
A former first lady, senator and secretary of State, Clinton is one of the most famous politicians in the world and has been at the forefront of nearly every political debate for more than two decades.
The familiarity is not necessarily a bonus for Clinton in the Democratic primary, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where caucusgoers are overwhelmingly liberal.
“No one wants the pragmatist right now,” said one Democratic strategist. “Yes, Hillary Clinton makes sense, but sometimes you want the guy who seems more real and exciting.”
Republicans, for their part, have cast Clinton as a figure from the past.
“Clinton’s problem is that she’s viewed as inauthentic and untrustworthy,” said Jeff Bechdel, the communications director for the America Rising PAC. “Those issues stem from decades in the public eye and unethical behavior like her private email server that regularly reinforces those notions among voters.”
Clinton has tried in the past to shake that label, noting that there’s nothing as “outsider” as a woman running for president.
She’s also sought to cast herself as a champion for average Americans, repeatedly noting on the campaign trail that she is fighting for those who have been “knocked down but refuse to be knocked out.”
Some Clinton supporters argue being an establishment figure is actually a primary selling point for her — particularly against Sanders, a senator who identifies first as a democratic socialist.
Clinton’s surrogates have slowly begun floating attacks against Sanders as a “socialist,” although the candidate and the campaign have been slow to embrace the line of attack.
“I’d like to see her hit back more forcefully on the issue the campaign has completely passed on — the fact that Bernie is a socialist,” said Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, a Clinton fundraiser. “They figured it’s better off not to anger him and his supporters, but it’s been an error by the campaign to ignore this.”
The Clinton campaign has done everything it can to present its candidate as the more electable Democrat in November.
“We’ve all been young at some point and had that anti-establishment streak,” said former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who is on Clinton’s campaign leadership council in Colorado. “But at some point the reality of life kicks in, and voters will want someone with the right temperament to determine what’s real and what’s not. My view is we need to be making the argument about who has the ability to actually govern.”
Democratic strategists say that’s a smart strategy for Clinton, noting that she’s prone to getting blown off course when she gets outside her comfort zone on the campaign trail.
“Hillary is at her best and strongest campaigning as who she is,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “She can’t try to be someone who she thinks voters might want more. I think she recognizes her resume and experience and her ability to bring diverse factions of the establishment together is a strength, not a weakness.”
At last week’s debate, Clinton went out of her way to embrace President Obama’s legacy — a move with obvious appeal to establishment-minded Democrats — as well as to black voters who will be a crucial bloc in South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 27.
McMahon, the Democratic strategist, called the outsider vs. establishment battle a “political Rorschach test” and said the political calculations by the two sides will bear out shortly.
“What you see and feel depends on where you’re sitting,” he said. “If you’re a Clinton supporter, having establishment support, particularly among blacks, Latinos and women and older people is a badge of courage. If you’re Trump or Sanders, then ‘establishment’ is a bad word ... as they say in Texas, we’re fixing to find out who is right and who is wrong.”