In case you weren’t already aware, there’s a really odd election going on. And earlier this week, one of the odder twists of the 2016 cycle began, fittingly, on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Speaking with Kimmel Wednesday night, Donald Trump entertained the idea of debating Bernie Sanders after Kimmel asked him about it, saying “If I debated him we would have such high ratings and I think we should take that money and give it to some worthy charity.”
Sanders responded to the proposition on Twitter, with a glib “Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary.”
On Thursday, Trump seemingly reinforced his enthusiasm with the idea, telling voters in Bismark, North Dakota, “I’d love to debate Bernie. He’s a dream. If we can raise for maybe women’s health issues or something. If we can raise $10 or $15 million for charity, which would be a very appropriate amount.”
When Trump suggested that the debate would need to happen in a big arena, Sanders responded again on Twitter with “I am delighted that @realDonaldTrump has agreed to debate. Let’s do it in the biggest stadium possible.”
Given how Trump’s last debate-related charity event went (not well at all, though Trump, predictably, disputes that), and the fact that Hillary Clinton has thus far refused to debate Sanders in advance of the California primary, should we be surprised it has come to this?
A Politico article speculated that “With no Democratic debate, Sanders seems to be looking for any way to keep up his campaign’s momentum. A showdown between the fiery senator and the bombastic real estate mogul would be must-watch TV and possibly the most-hyped media spectacle of this crazy campaign year.”
Therein lies the problem with this whole proposition – even if there is something to be gained by Sanders in placing his progressive causes front and center on perhaps the biggest stage of this campaign, the potential negative consequences outweigh the positives… by a lot.
To start, the dynamic surrounding the debate unfortunately already hews closer to the bully-in-the-schoolyard approach of Trump’s campaign than anything from the Sanders campaign. Game on? Seriously?
For two candidates drawing upon the deep-seated anger among certain parts of the left and right, seeing their elementary back and forth perhaps isn’t surprising, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. As Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN, they hope Trump doesn’t “chicken out”.
Which is all well and good, but Sanders’ insistence on debating a media virtuoso place him directly in the trap that the media has fallen into time and time again with Trump — caring too much about him.
By latching onto one of Trump’s offhand remarks, he’s given Trump an even bigger platform to spread his asinine beliefs. The problem is that many Americans don’t feel that these beliefs are asinine at all, and by circumventing an already weak party structure on both ends, Sanders and Trump have set themselves up in opposition to the existing political status quo.
And is there any chance there won’t be a section of this debate in which both Trump and Sanders rail against the Democratic Party, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton? As Trump contended in North Dakota yesterday, “The problem with debating Bernie is he’s going to lose. Because honestly his system is rigged. Just like our system is rigged.” Sanders and Trump have both argued this, and getting on the same stage to do so again, and finding themselves in agreement, would only lend a huge degree of legitimacy to Trump, the only one of the two whose campaign will survive the summer.
Hasn’t Bernie said he would do everything he could to defeat Donald Trump? This debate would do the opposite.
Perhaps the best outcome of this whole situation, if the debate does happen, would be if Sanders forces Clinton’s hand on a number of progressive issues before the general election. More than that, though, trumpeting his causes front and center may force a number of them from the far left into the center of bipartisan American political discussion, which Sanders has done masterfully on issues like raising the federal minimum wage.
If Sanders can use a debate to pressure Trump into accepting even more progressive dogma into the Republican platform, he will have succeeded in single-handedly shifting the nation’s political discourse to the left.
However, If Sanders is committed to working seven days a week to stop Trump, as he has said he is, then he will take a pass on the debate. Trump has already pivoted to the general election. He will be working to undercut Clinton and bolster Sanders because he sees the current divide in the Democratic party. And even if Trump were to align with Sanders on certain progressive issues, would that not also help him in the general election? Of course it would.
Drawing a stark opposition between Democrats and Trump should be Sanders’ goal going forward, and muddying those waters only allows Trump to adorn various rhetorical guises that will eventually benefit his campaign.
While bringing progressive issues into the Republican platform is important, the stakes are too high in this election to play with the fire that is Donald Trump. Trump’s stoking of Sanders’ supporters’ anger by insisting the system is “rigged against Sanders” will bolster the Bernie or Bust movement. And Bernie will have played right into future President Trump’s hand.
Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Prairie, Texas February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder