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Would Trump-Sanders debate blow up politics as we know it?

A shift in thought

Bernie Sanders isn't on track for a nomination win, so in theory presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump shouldn't debate him. But this is a new era in the media and politics. 

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    An audience member wearing a t-shirt and cap for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Binghamton, N.Y., on April 11.
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Bernie Sanders is going to debate Donald Trump. Possibly – we’re not sure whether the proposal is just banter.

But appearing on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Wednesday night, Trump said he’d be up for a Sanders showdown if proceeds went to charity. Within minutes Senator Sanders tweeted “Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary.”

Words cannot describe how exciting this would be, but we’ll try a few. “Unprecedented.” “Unpredictable.” “Bonkers.”

A presumptive nominee debating the second-place finisher of the opposing party? It’ll be the most unusual political clash in presidential politics since Clint Eastwood talked to that empty chair during the 2012 Republican National Convention.

If nothing else, a Trump/Sanders debate might signal just how much the big parties that govern America have lost control of the presidential nomination process, this year and maybe for every year to come.

A traditional Republican strategist might be aghast at a nominee focusing on a Democratic also-ran. That’s called punching down, and generally it can only distract a candidate and create problems you don’t need to have.

But Mr. Trump, who secured the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination Thursday, doesn’t take orders from the Republican National Committee. He’s got a personal vision for his campaign, and it includes trying to win over as many Sanders voters as he can. Probably he sees Sanders as both an antagonist and a fellow populist. In “debating” Sanders, maybe he can broaden his own following.

In five or 10 years the Republican Party will be a “workers party, a party of people who haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years,” Trump told Joshua Green of Bloomberg News.

Proposing cuts to Social Security to put it on a firmer fiscal foundation, as Speaker Paul Ryan has often proposed in the past? That’s wrong, according to Trump.

“Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all],” Trump told Bloomberg.

Hmmm. Who does that sound like?

Meanwhile, the prospect of Trump and Sanders appearing on television together is probably making Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz apoplectic.

Hillary Clinton turned down an invitation to debate Sanders prior to the June 7 California primary. With the nomination a virtual lock, she wanted to start focusing on the general election, and trying to heal the divisions within the party.

Now Sanders has (maybe) seized an opportunity to remind her of how profound those divisions might be, and to reinsert himself into a race he’s already pretty much lost. And there’s little the Democratic Party can do about it. At this point, what leverage does the DNC have over Sanders? He’s an independent actor in the Senate. He’s got no interest in a Cabinet post, or really any sort of future as a regular party politician. He’s apparently just devoted to advancing his issues – the dangers of inequality, the distortions of big money in politics – any way he sees fit.

Enter Jimmy Kimmel. Sure, presidential candidates have been appearing on talk shows for decades. But the political infotainment industry has accelerated in the age of President Obama, driven by the explosion in web shows and other outlets and the competition for clicks and views. Producers are eager for any angle that will give them an edge. Can we broker an ad hoc debate? Great! So what if we have to put up money to make it appear as if the whole thing is a charity fund-raiser. It’ll be great for ratings.

But a bit of advice for Trump and Sanders here, as if they need it: Be careful. The aims of Mr. Kimmel and ABC don’t jibe with your own. They want the most exciting confrontation possible. And you know what their dream for this encounter really is?

It’s all notional. But what they’d really like is for special guest star Hillary Clinton to emerge from the wings just as Trump and Sanders get going.

 
 
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