On Wednesday night, Donald Trump turned an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! into an opportunity to suck up another news cycle when he agreed to debate Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders “for charity,” a bizarre move that underscores just how far this campaign season has spun out of orbit.
Trump, of course, has the Republican nomination wrapped up, while Sanders needs a miracle landslide in California and an unlikely win in New Jersey to overtake Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates. The two men are not running against each other in any real sense—and even if Sanders somehow wrested the Democratic nomination from Clinton, it would be strange for general election candidates to debate before being officially crowned as the nominees.
As the Atlantic’s Matt Ford pointed out, intra-party debates are usually organized by the parties themselves, and general election debates are sorted out with the help of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The terms of a Sanders–Trump debate, on the other hand, would have to be agreed upon by the individual campaigns without the help of an arbiter. Reaching across parties like that would be pretty much unprecedented.
By Thursday morning, some Trump campaign sources had told Major Garrett of CBS News that the debate would “never happen” and that it “was only a joke.” But Sanders’s campaign clearly wasn’t joking when it challenged Trump to a debate in an open letter. And when Kimmel asked Trump about it Wednesday, the Republican didn’t seem to be goofing around, saying he’d be open to the idea in principle. Sanders’s tweeted reply was completely straight-faced as well:
Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) May 26, 2016
All of this comes after Clinton declined to debate Sanders before the California primary on June 7, a move that naturally upset the Vermont senator’s supporters. At this point, Clinton is clearly looking to forget her primary opponent, and pivot to the general election battle against Trump; Sanders, however, would obviously welcome any opportunity to air his views before voters one last time. Appearing onstage with Trump would also give Sanders, a frequent critic of the “billionaire class,” a chance to show how he would take on a guy who claims he’s a billionaire.
Sanders has argued that he’s the candidate best positioned to beat Trump, and that Democratic Party’s unpledged superdelegates should therefore back him even if he fails to overtake Clinton in delegates before the Democratic National Convention. Giving the Republican reality TV star a good dose of the Bern on a national stage could bolster that argument, particularly as Sanders continues to narrow the gap between him and Clinton in California polls.
Trump’s angle here is also fairly obvious. On Kimmel, he told the host that he sympathized with Sanders’s fight against a “rigged” primary system, and increasingly, he’s been repurposing the Vermont senator’s arguments into his own attacks against Clinton. Trump also admitted to Kimmel that he thought Sanders would be easier to beat than Clinton, and he has previously encouraged Sanders to stay in the race, so the Republican is clearly operating on a kind of enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend theory of politics.
And with some polls showing that a not insignificant number of Sanders supporters hate Trump less than they hate Clinton, it’s not difficult to imagine that some Sanders Democrats might become Trump Republicans—or at least the real estate mogul can hope.
On Thursday morning, many pundits argued that the prospect of Sanders and Trump teaming up to unite #NeverClinton voters would be, as one USA Today headline put it, “Clinton’s nightmare.” But Trump and Sanders are not allies by any stretch of the imagination. Sanders has called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “nutcase,” while the Republican has nicknamed the senator “Crazy Bernie Sanders.”
A head-to-head between these two men, if it ever happened, would be as unpredictable and likely as vitriolic as any of the notoriously aggressive GOP debates this year. So it’s far from clear that Clinton would be damaged in the long run by this hypothetical debate. In fact, Trump’s responses to Sanders’s attacks could give her a preview of how he might react to similar jabs from her campaign. If Sanders faltered, or got flustered by Trump’s bullying, it would damage the electability argument he’s been using to justify his continued campaign. On the other hand, anything Sanders did to hurt Trump would likely help Clinton.
Only one thing is clear, at this point: “We would have such high ratings,” Trump told Kimmel. Whatever you think of the guy, his claims about his own ability to draw eyeballs are usually not wrong.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.