That headline reads like a political fever dream, perhaps cooked up in the Saturday Night Live writers' room. But this is the 2016 presidential cycle, so of course it's real. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel's late night talk show Wednesday (other guests reportedly canceled due to his presence in the line-up), presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump said he'd agree to a pre-California televised debate against Hillary Clinton's primary opponent -- the scrappy anti-establishment Socialist, Bernie Sanders -- if the proceeds went to charity. Putting aside Trump's incoherent ideology, uniquely poor temperament and sprawling ignorance, the man is a quick-on-his feet genius when it comes to marketing. Kimmel hits him with Sanders' unusual challenge, and Trump instantly figures out how to play the hand he's being dealt. Watch:
The Sanders campaign responded on Twitter almost immediately:
Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) May 26, 2016
From Sanders' perspective, this is a no-lose situation. Though he's destined to come up short in his party's "rigged" primary -- as Trump calls it in the clip, appealing to disenchanted Bernie voters -- this publicity stunt would likely generate enormous interest ahead of the final round of primary balloting. The Vermont Senator would get to square off with a cartoonish capitalist, pound away at his campaign themes using Trump as an irresistible foil, and probably get the Republican nominee-in-waiting to accept a number of his premises on policy while he's at it. He also trolls the hell out of Hillary Clinton, who's hunkered down in her paranoid bunker somewhere, reeling from new email scandal developments, hypocritically refusing to debate the man who's beaten her more than 20 times thus far, and characteristically avoiding the press. The potential benefits for Trump are less clear. If the debate occurs (Team Sanders is pushing hard for it; we'll see if Trump finds some trapdoor to avoid the spectacle he's just agreed to), he'll zestfully join in the Hillary needling. He'd probably make several unsubtle appeals to Sanders' base along the way, emphasizing his concurrence with their angry contention that the Democratic nominating system is unfairly controlled by party elites, and congratulating Sanders for having the courage of his convictions to debate big issues in front of voters -- unlike you-know-who.
If part of Trump's general election strategy is to pick off significant numbers of disgruntled former Bernie folks who may still be drawn to an outsider iconoclast up against Clinton, he'll have a chance to speak to them directly. As fruitless as that play may prove to be, Trump might as well give it a whirl, especially if he continues to underperform among middle class rust belt voters. One big question would be whether he'd manage to resist the temptation to insult Sanders, which could bait and anger the latter's supporters, perhaps helping unify the Left. Getting needlessly personal would have little strategic value for Trump in that context, but neither does his continued dumping on fellow Republicans, including ones who've endorsed him. Trump's gonna Trump. The other potential upside here is the creation of a hyped-up, larger-than-life, made-for-TV event that showcases the celebrity billionaire cementing his image that he's a totally non-traditional politician running a wild campaign that would make high-dollar consultants pull their hair out. Basically, he's still the showman, doing things on his terms; who cares what "they" say? If Trump can battle to an approximate rhetorical draw against Bernie and avoid a damaging general election soundbyte or a clear loss, the optics of the event might look less like a weird sideshow between two fringe figures, and more like an appealing bipartisan middle finger to the aloof, ethically-compromised woman who embodies Washington's insular and entitled establishment. There's a risk that this event could elevate her as the last serious candidate standing, sagaciously eschewing the silly fray. But there's also a chance that it diminishes her, underscoring her incurable identify as a craven, out-of-touch pol. Parting thought: Place your bets. Does this thing actually go down between now and June 7? I'd say 70/30 'no,' which means it'll probably happen.
UPDATE - Hope you got your bets in quickly. This sounds like a 'LOL, jk' from Trumpworld:
Sanders' campaign is, fittingly, keeping the faith against all odds:
Weaver on MSNBC says there are back-channel discussions w/ Trump campaign about debate but not w/ Clinton campaign about party unity.— Chris Golden (@chrisgolden) May 26, 2016
I'm shifting to 95/5.