The debate happening itself undermines Clinton’s overall delegate lead over Sanders, and the proceedings would most likely involve both the participants bashing the concept of superdelegates or at least discrediting their current alignment.
Ever since Hillary Clinton declined to debate Sanders before the California primary, reneging on her promise made in February when the initial run of debates had elapsed and she had wanted another — the Sanders campaign has only taken it in step and explored other avenues, one of which seems a distinct possibility — a Sanders-Trump debate. NBC News reported that,
In the latest twist to this unpredictable 2016 presidential race, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders independently agreed Wednesday night to debate each other.
On ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Trump was asked if he would consider holding a debate with Sanders. Trump agreed to the idea.
Sanders quickly responded with a tweet reading, "Game On. I look forward
to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7th primary."
This is a masterstroke on the part of the Sanders campaign and could do nothing but benefit them if it comes to fruition. The person who stands to lose the most from the arrangement of a Sanders-Trump debate is Hillary Clinton. Though the Trump campaign now seems reluctant to make good on its promise, here are the reasons why this could be a game-changer:
1. For months now, Hillary Clinton has been trying to ‘focus on the general election’ as the ‘frontrunner’ to take on Donald Trump. If the Republican nominee agrees to debate her opponent, it is the biggest slap on the face to the claim that the Democratic race is ‘over’.
2. The debate happening itself undermines Clinton’s overall delegate lead over Sanders, and the proceedings would most likely involve both the participants bashing the concept of superdelegates or at least discrediting their current alignment.
3. It is impossible for Hillary Clinton to jump into the fray because Trump would never agree to a 2 vs 1 match on the national stage. Both of them attacking Trump in a three person debate would have been the best-case scenario for Clinton.
4. It is inevitable that Trump will be confronted by the moderators on the fact that Sanders is polling extremely well against him — often by as much as 15 points. Trump will have to admit that on national TV. What will also be admitted on national TV is how much better Sanders is polling against Trump than Clinton is — and is the better candidate to take on Trump.
5. Sanders can prove his better numbers against Trump in a more substantive way — on the issues on the debate stage. People will be able to visually witness him in action as the possible nominee against Trump. It would provide undecided voters a glimpse of how the Senator would deal with Republican attacks and Trump’s personal insults — something the Clinton campaign has been fearmongering about.
6. Like in the Democratic debates against Clinton, Sanders would be the one championing the progressive cause — on abortion, LGBT rights, race, civil rights, minimum wage, foreign policy, trade, guns, single-payer healthcare, free college, breaking up the banks, closing tax loopholes. That he does it with integrity, fiery devotion, consistency and a lifelong record to back it up would be a strong contrast to Clinton, who flip flops and would in any case scurry to the centre in a general election context.
7. Clinton’s refusal to debate will surely be brought up and it would be acceptable for both participants to condemn her decision.
8. For the purpose of defeating Trump in November, let us assume that Sanders will not attack Clinton on her emails or Clinton Foundation donations. When confronted with a question on the emails, Sanders will still have the option of either staying silent (implicitly showing the viewers and Democrats that his scandal-free career would be no liability compared to Hillary) or talk about how he is a better candidate than Clinton in ideological and policy terms.
9. Both Trump and Sanders could nail her on her Wall Street transcripts.
10. Most importantly, Sanders will have the opportunity to do the most amount of damage possible to Trump in the entire election season. This may be the first and only time the two anti-establishment populist candidates debate each other, and it would enable Sanders to expose Trump’s pseudo-populism for the posturing that it is. Trump claims to be against the trade deals the US signed such as NAFTA, PNTR, CAFTA but he is a beneficiary of them. He aims to give tax breaks to rich people like himself. He doesn’t believe in a higher minimum wage. He claims he is not beholden to anyone, is an ‘outsider’ and funds himself, unlike Hillary — but like her he will not enact policies that hurt the interests of his class or donors, or in other words, will not undo the rigged economy or the hold of the private prison, gun and pharma lobbies. If Hillary is the one who takes bribes, then Trump has been through the course of his life the one who does the bribing, a bigger insider than many, as a big beneficiary of the status quo of the past three decades. Sanders is not a millionaire like Clinton or a billionaire like Trump, he has always stood up to special interests, has never taken big donations from corporations or lobbyists, does not have a SuperPAC, or shell companies, and has had no role in the government misdeeds of the past. A Clinton presidency would not harm Trump, and nor would a Trump presidency harm a politician like Clinton. The outsiderness that matters is not the absence of a political career, but a career in public service of standing up for working and poor people, for social justice — a career of not being an accomplice or co-conspirator at the dinner table of the oligarchy.
Not only would the Independent Senator from Vermont prove himself as the real outsider against the oligarchy, but he could contrast his critique of the system and his solutions right there with Trump’s — in front of viewers that distrust the establishment but may be undecided or currently familiar with and leaning Trump, as well as prove himself in front of Republicans that dislike both Clinton and Trump. His consistency, honesty and favorability ratings, especially when compared to the historic unfavorables of Trump and Clinton, offer him excellent electoral potential. To bolster that, there are past examples: Sanders gets roughly 25% of the Republican vote in Vermont.
The author is a research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre For Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.