What the hell are you doing, Bernie? The Vermont senator inexplicably agrees to debate Donald Trump

Sanders has nothing to gain by facing off with Trump. And it's no-lose proposition for the billionaire

By Sean Illing
May 26, 2016 6:12PM (UTC)
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Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump (AP/Elaine Thompson/Gene J. Puskar/Photo montage by Salon)

Unless Hillary Clinton is indicted (which remains unlikely), Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee. It's a tiresome task, having to make this point over and over again. But it's necessary. Sanders continues to campaign as though the race isn't over, and that's understandable. There are still votes left to be cast and he has every right to lobby for as many as possible.

His campaign has made it clear the goal at this point is to secure as many votes and delegates as possible before the convention. The more successful they are, the more leverage they'll have. If Sanders is sincere about reshaping the party and influencing the platform, this makes perfect sense. So when he says things like, “When I'm elected president, we're going to open the Democratic Party wide open,” as he did recently at a rally in California, that's a candidate playing to the crowd. If you're still asking for people's votes, you have to feign optimism. “We can't win the nomination but I want more leverage at the convention” lacks inspiration.


So I've no problem with Sanders campaigning aggressively until the last vote is cast. However, if the primary aim at this point is influence over the party, burning it down is unwise. I don't believe challenging a presumptive nominee in the primaries is wrong or counterproductive, and so calls for Sanders to pivot away from Clinton are misguided. Applying pressure on Clinton is part of the broader effort to push the party leftward.

But the latest news that Sanders wants to debate Donald Trump in California before the Democratic primary is perplexing. Wednesday night, Trump appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and was asked if he was prepared to debate Sanders. If the money was donated to a “worthy charity,” Trump replied, “I would love to do that.” Sanders quickly responded on Twitter, writing “Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary.”

Now all of this debate talk may be just that – talk. Nothing formal has been announced and it's entirely likely this never happens. Indeed, there are reports today that Trump is backing off his comments. If true, I'm not sure why. This is a no-lose proposition for him. It doesn't matter how poorly he performs, his supporters won't care and Republicans aren't switching sides. This is an opportunity for Trump to take the sledgehammer to Clinton alongside a fellow Democrat.


From Sanders's perspective, it's not clear what's to be gained. Even if he thrashes Trump at the debate, nothing changes. He might get a bump in the polls and perhaps even win California narrowly, but he'll still lose the Democratic nomination. Worse still, he'll lose any credibility he has within the party, and thus any chance he has to improve it. Whether he wants to or not, Sanders will be forced in a debate like this – by the moderator and his opponent – to bash Clinton and the Democratic Party generally.

Recall that Trump has slyly sided with Sanders in recent weeks, calling the Democratic process “rigged” and corrupt. “I think it's very unfair what's happening to Bernie Sanders,” he told Kimmel, “and it's a very unfair system.” He might be right, but that's not the point. This is Trump appealing to alienated Sanders voters in order to drive them away in November. It's a smart – if transparent – strategy on his part.

The only person this debate benefits is Donald Trump. It does nothing to further Sanders's cause and it will do needless damage to Clinton, who is a painfully flawed nominee but the nominee nevertheless. Dissatisfaction with Clinton among progressives is real and understandable. She has a lot of fence-mending to do between now and November. But if Sanders is serious about changing the party and keeping Trump out of the White House, he ought to rethink this.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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