Bernie Sanders relishes ripping on Donald Trump, describing the billionaire as “someone who must never become president of this country.”
No surprise there.
Sanders has run his entire 2016 presidential campaign in opposition to plutocracy, oligarchy, and billionaire-dominated politics—proudly declaring that his run is paid for by small donors and “not the billionaires.” In fact, Sanders has run his entire political career in opposition to plutocracy, oligarchy, and billionaire-dominated politics. He has, as well, spent decades critiquing a media system that pays more attention to “lifestyles of the rich and famous” celebrity than the real-world issues facing working-class Americans. That’s made Trump, a billionaire byproduct of the media’s cult of celebrity, a preferred target for the senator, who rips the Republican’s rhetoric as “shameful” and complains that “every day he comes up with another stupid remark, absurd remarks.”
So it was a given that Sanders would embrace the idea of debating Trump—after the billionaire told Jimmy Kimmel on Wednesday that he would be willing to debate the dissident Democrat. Sanders, who has tried without success to get one more debate with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton before the June 7 California primary, jumped at the prospect of stirring things up with Trump.
“Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary,” said Sanders, whose uphill campaign would undoubtedly have benefited from the attention accorded a clash with the Republican candidate.
But the game wasn’t on. Trump backed out Friday afternoon, offering a list of excuses for why he would not do the debate.
That made sense for Trump, as Sanders would have given the billionaire no quarter — and might well have damaged the Republican’s ability to fool some of the people some of the time with a faux-populist appeal in the fall.
While it is true that both Sanders and Trump criticize elites, they do so from radically different perspectives. Trump is a nationalist, a xenophobe, and something of an isolationist. Sanders is an economic populist who rips on corporations and preaches international solidarity in the fight against austerity. They have fundamental disagreements, and Sanders would have made the contrast clear — illustrating the distinction between a Republican who claims to care for workers and candidate who actually has a pro-worker agenda.
Sanders did just that in an April appearance on MSNBC. “[What] is Donald Trump’s position on raising the minimum wage? Well, he doesn’t think so. What is Donald Trump’s position on wages in America? Well, he said in a Republican debate he thinks wages are too high,” the senator told Rachel Maddow. “What’s Donald Trump’s position on taxes? Well, he wants to give billionaire families like himself hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks. What is Donald Trump’s position on climate change? Oh, he thinks it’s a hoax perpetrated, shock of all shock, by the Chinese. You know, on and on it goes.”
The Vermonter’s determination to debate was about more than Trump.
Sanders has always been excited by the prospect of one-on-one debates with Republicans.
A year ago, when Sanders spoke to The Nation about the campaign he had just launched, he was pushing for more Democratic debates. But he was also talking about broader debates. Asked if he would as a Democratic contender be willing to engage in a one-on-one debate with a Republican contender, he answered, “Of course I would.”
“I would like as many debates as possible, and I would also like to break new ground and have debates with Republicans and Democrats. I think that will be very positive for the American people in that we’ll be able to focus on issues. Let the Republicans defend why they want to give tax breaks to the billionaires and make massive cuts in Medicare. I would love to hear it,” said Sanders. “The most serious political problem facing this country is that we don’t discuss the serious issues facing this country. And the American people are becoming increasingly alienated from the political process; 63 percent of the American people didn’t vote last November. I’m looking for ways to bring them into a serious discussion about serious issues. When we do that, the Republican agenda will be exposed for the disaster it is.”
Sanders did not anticipate that he would be debating Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. But the point of the debate he anticipated was not personalities. The point was to stir it up on the issues.
“I’m the ranking member on the Budget Committee. The Republican budget gave over $200 billion in tax breaks over a 10-year period to the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent—massive cuts in Medicare, massive cuts in Medicaid, massive cuts in education, threw 27 million people off their health insurance. That is the Republican budget. That is what they believe.… That’s exactly what their budget did. The Republicans get away with murder because what they do and what they want is not seen, is not understood by the American people, because it’s not talked about,” Sanders said last year. “So I think the more that we can confront Republicans about their ideology of tax breaks for the billionaires and cuts to every program that is a benefit to the American people, and can expose them for their subservience to the billionaire class—I think that wins for us every single time.”
(This article was updated to reflect Trump’s decision not to participate in the proposed debate.)