Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign came under fire over the weekend for planting fake questions at town hall events, as all the Democratic candidates gathered in Iowa for the state party’s pivotal Jefferson- Jackson Day dinner.
The Clinton campaign arranged for a college student to ask a “canned” question at an event on Tuesday, which was first reported on Friday by Patrick Caldwell, a writer for Scarlet and Black, a student newspaper at Grinnell College. The student, Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, said a senior Clinton staffer told her what question to ask after Clinton finished her remarks.
When Clinton called on her, Gallo-Chasanoff said, “as a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?” The exchange has drawn plenty of media attention and criticism from Clinton’s rivals, who accused her of adopting the “politics of planting.” Gallo-Chasanoff told The Nation all the attention created an “awful experience” and she wants “nothing else to do with it.” Caldwell, the student who broke the story, claims the campaign tried to plant multiple questions at the event. Iowans would disapprove of “campaigns planting audience members” and “deceiving” the public, he added, because there is such a strong tradition of caucus town halls.
A Clinton spokesperson initially denied the planting allegation, telling Caldwell that planting questions was not a practice of the campaign and that it did not occur to “the best of [his] knowledge.” On Saturday, however, the Associated Press reported that another Clinton spokesperson acknowledged the question was indeed planted. “On this occasion a member of our staff did discuss a possible question about Senator Clinton’s energy plan at a forum,” a spokesperson told reporters, adding, “this is not standard policy and will not be repeated again.”
Yet further allegations of other planted questions continued to surface over the weekend. On Saturday, ABC News reported that a Clinton operative attempted to plant a question with Geoff Mitchell, a 32-year-old minister, at an Iowa event on April 2. The Clinton campaign confirmed that a staffer spoke with him, but asserted that the staffer had a “previous relationship” with Mitchell and casually “suggested that he ask a question about Iraq.” Mitchell, however, said he “had no previous relationship with” the Clinton staffer. (The Clinton Campaign did not respond to requests for further comment.)
During the same Iowa trip in early April, a Clinton aide suggested that audience members ask the Senator a question about her confrontation with President Bush over Iraq deadlines, an issue that the campaign was highlighting at the time. As The Politico reported on April 3, “[o]ne local Democratic Party official told The Politico that a Clinton aide had also suggested that he and other audience members ask questions about the confrontation [with Bush].” And last month, Clinton actually accused an audience member of being a plant after he asked a question about her vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
The reports of a planting pattern come at a tough time for Clinton, who was widely criticized for being evasive during the last presidential debate. Faking questions is a particularly serious charge in Iowa, where caucus-goers are notoriously proud of their unique democratic process. (Howard Dean lost support when his earlier complaints about the caucus emerged late last cycle.)
And some Democratic activists say faking interactions with the public is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s manipulative tactics. Liberal bloggers have already begun comparing Clinton’s town halls to the recent fake “news conference” staged by FEMA.
The flap moved John Edwards to weigh in on Saturday after his speech to the Farmers’ Union. “That’s what George does: George Bush goes to events that are staged where people are screened,” The Politico‘s Ben Smith reported. “That’s not the way democracy works in Iowa,” Edwards added.
On Fox News, pundit Alan Colmes tried to defend Clinton’s practices by drawing a parallel to the current President. “This is much ado about nothing,” he said during his Friday broadcast. “George W. Bush ran carefully controlled town hall meetings during both of his candidacies.” For many Democratic voters, that is part of the problem.