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The Sanders Debate Gambit

The Sanders Debate Gambit

    Last night Donald Trump appeared on Jimmy Kimmel and said he would debate Bernie Sanders so long as the profits from the debate go to charity. Sanders quickly agreed via Twitter. There’s your headline for a few days, or more.

    Let me tell you how clever that was.

    By agreeing to debate Sanders, Trump minimizes Clinton and embarrasses her. It will look to the public as if she’s hiding, afraid to debate. 

    By tying a Sanders debate to charity, Trump signals that Sanders isn’t a “real” opponent. So Sanders gets minimized at the same time. And it puts Sanders in follower mode. Trump suggested, Sanders followed.

    The charity angle will probably make the debate impractical. The networks don’t want to run a freebie. So there is a high chance it won’t happen. But Trump gets credit – and attention – for offering.

    Imagine what happens if Trump and Sanders start discussing which charity gets the proceeds. If Trump picks a veterans organization, Sanders would be supporting Trump’s brand. Trump is all about the veterans. And I also imagine Trump making an opening offer to split the money 70-30, with Sanders’ chosen charity getting the smaller part. That opening offer would be headlines for days.

    If the debate happens, Trump shows strength by exposing himself to attacks. But it also gives him the opportunity to frame the race as two rebels versus more-of-the-same-Clinton. 

    Would Trump lose a debate to Sanders? Trump is famously light on policy details, but keep in mind that Sanders would have to explain how he pays for his ideas. Trump can embrace Sanders’ ideals (universal healthcare, free college) while pointing out that we have no way to pay for that stuff in the short run. Compared to Sanders, Trump would start to look like the mainstream candidate. Trump needs that.

    Both Trump and Sanders could attack Clinton on stage, to huge ratings, while Clinton has no effective way to respond. Clinton can’t even TALK about the debate without giving it more attention.

    The risk to Trump is that Sanders wins the debate. But they have seen each other’s act so often that no one would expect a knockout punch in either direction. In fact, I would expect both of them to show uncharacteristic respect to each other on stage. Trump wants Sanders’ voters, and Sanders has created a brand that is built around civility. I would expect them to play nice. That helps Trump more than Sanders if it makes Trump seem more “presidential.”

    As usual, Trump has created multiple ways to win and only one (improbable) way to lose. If the debate never happens, Trump wins by making the offer and getting the attention. If the debate happens, it minimizes both Clinton and Sanders. The only risk is that Trump loses the debate to Sanders in a huge way. And that seems deeply unlikely.

    Trump is taking some risk with the offer, but not a big one. I call it a good bet.

    For new readers, my political views do not align with Trump or any of the other candidates. My interest is in Trump’s talents for persuasion.

    Still time to bid on the original Dilbert comics drawn by CNN’s Jake Tapper. Proceeds go to Homes for Our Troops.

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