The XX Factor

Bernie Sanders Just Can’t Get It Right With Women’s Groups

Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Candidates Debate hosted by NBC News and YouTube on January 17 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders found himself on the wrong side of a major women’s organization for the second time in as many weeks. The first dust-up came when Planned Parenthood (along with the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign) issued its first-ever presidential endorsement, on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Sanders fired back by calling the nonprofits “part of the establishment” that he’s running to take on. The latest came at an Iowa town hall meeting, where Sanders’ efforts to walk back his Planned Parenthood comments sounded like foot-in-mouth to some feminists, and led a NARAL Pro-Choice America spokeswoman to write: “Senator Sanders once again highlighted the difference between an ally and a champion. … His voting record is sufficient, but it doesn’t make him a champion for women. That champion is Hillary.”

Sanders must have been anticipating a question about his relationship to America’s foremost women’s healthcare provider, because when a Drake University student started to ask, “How are you going to fight for women’s rights more effectively than a female candidate with endorsements from organizations like these…” Uncle Bern cut her off with a shake of his finger. “No no, now, that’s not quite accurate,” he started in, presumably referring to last week’s cries that he’d dissed Planned Parenthood rather than the content of the woman’s question.

I have a 100 percent pro-choice voting record. In every speech that I give, what I say is not only do we stop the Republican efforts to try to defund Planned Parenthood, we should expand funding for Planned Parenthood. Now, what I said on a television program, and I did not say it well, is that sometimes the base of an organization looks at the world a little bit differently than the leadership. So if you have a 100 percent pro-Planned Parenthood voting record, 100 percent pro-choice voting record, there are people who are asking, ‘Why is the leadership not either supporting Bernie Sanders, or why are they opposing him?’ And my point is that I will fight… these are great organizations. I met with Planned Parenthood. They do a fantastic job not only in defending women’s rights in general but in talking about sexuality in America. They are a fantastic organization; count me in as somebody who strongly supports them. So this was simply a question of endorsement policy, not whether or not I support these organizations.

It’s true that Sanders has a consistently pro-choice voting record—as, of course, does Clinton. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, for him to characterize Planned Parenthood’s siding with Clinton as “simply a question of endorsement policy.” Since this was the organization’s first foray into presidential endorsements, it would seem that the choice was an active one, not a passive replication of long-standing practice.

But Sanders is right that the general public can’t know whether Planned Parenthood backed Clinton out of genuine gusto or because the embattled healthcare provider made a political calculation that she was its most electable hope—and that she, like Planned Parenthood, might need all the help she can get.

NARAL rightly tweaked Sanders not for what he did say on Tuesday, but for what he didn’t. “When asked a direct question about why he would be the best candidate for women, he ignored the impending crisis that restricts access to abortion,” spokeswoman Kaylie Hanson wrote. Sanders responded to the controversy over his “establishment” comment, but not to the question at hand: of how he would fight for women’s rights in office. He’s made it clear that, in his mind, the economic critique at the center of his campaign trumps the importance of any identity politics, including gender.

But as Hanson points out, access to health care—and especially to birth control and abortion, which allow women to time their families around their economic situations and their careers—“is an economic issue, and one that’s fundamental to a woman’s ability to succeed.” Sanders had a great opportunity to make that point last night, and thereby to signal that he really deserved Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. Once again, he passed.