Nobody knows what will happen in the votes upcoming on June 7th -- CNN gives Sanders a 44% chance of winning California, a 24% chance of winning New Mexico, a small but non-zero chance of winning New Jersey, and a better-than-even chance of winning all the other states -- but the one thing we know for sure is that if Sanders beats Clinton in California, thereby dealing a serious blow to the inevitability of her nomination, Donald Trump would have to be an idiot not to debate Sanders at RFK Stadium in DC at 7PM on June 11th.
The D.C. primary is scheduled for June 14th, and the atmosphere in the city on June 11th would be -- if Trump merely says "yes" to an invitation he's already said yes to twice -- absolutely electric.
Here's why: Trump previously agreed to debate Sanders for a $10 million gift to charity, and $20 million has already been raised, meaning that Trump maintaining his refusal to debate Sanders is in effect a theft of $20 million dollars from the very women's health charities Trump says he wants to support. Trump's previous reversal on debating Sanders was explained in part by the seeming inevitability of a Clinton nomination, but if Clinton loses California Trump will have a real chance to scare superdelegates away from a Clinton candidacy even more than they already would be if Clinton loses the Golden State. And Trump is facing the possibility of an incredibly boring lead-up to the Republican National Convention, with both smoke and fire on the Democratic side for all of June and July, so debating Sanders in what would surely be billed as the Debate of the Century would simply be common sense for the longtime showman.
Moreover, the setting is perfect: the District of Columbia, the center of all political power in America. Fox News Channel, which is chomping at the bit to get this debate and is exactly the channel Trump most wants to debate on, is headquartered in D.C. RFK Stadium holds about 45,000 people, ensuring that if Trump and Sanders can pack it -- which they would -- they'd be debating before the largest live audience in American history. In the event of rain, a Sunday-night rain-check debate would be easy enough to schedule, given that the Washington Redskins are in the off-season and the D.C. United (of Major League Soccer) don't play that weekend. Trump would love debating in the home of the Redskins because it would symbolically underscore his opposition to all things "politically correct" -- the "Redskins" brand having been the target of (in Trump's view risible) left-wing protests for many years now.
All Trump has to say is what he wants to say, anyway: Hillary losing California changed everything.
What better place to embarrass Hillary Clinton by debating her primary opponent than in the shadow of the White House and the U.S. Capitol? And what better time to show contempt for Clinton than when she's reeling from having just lost the biggest state in the union? And given that the results of the FBI investigation into Clinton's email server wouldn't have dropped by June 11th, what better stage on which to join Sanders' effort to flip superdelegates away from the former Secretary of State? For that matter, what better place to criticize Washington politicians and lobbyists -- not to mention the operation of Clinton's former workplace, the State Department -- than in D.C.? And what better way for Trump to emphasize that he does indeed plan to make a play for the votes of minority voters than by agreeing to debate in a city that's 50 percent black?
A debate in California would've been nice, but an under-the-stars debate at RFK Stadium on June 11th would be talked about by historians a hundred years from now.
While Trump may consider it beneath him to debate the non-leading Democratic candidate for President, we should note, first -- for the sake of accuracy -- that in fact nothing is beneath Mr. Trump if the highest television ratings and ad revenue in the history of the nation are in the offing. I don't even think Mr. Trump, who previously "wrestled" in the WWE, would disagree with this. Moreover, if Sanders has won California not only would he be in the midst of a 45-day period in which he might actually be able to flip some superdelegates against Clinton, he would certainly be in the pole position to set the Democratic Party platform: meaning that, if he wished, Trump could bill the debate as a tilt between the future of the Republican and Democratic parties. No one thinks Clinton represents the long-term future of the Democratic Party -- whether she secures the nomination or not -- so only a debate with Sanders offers the optics of a genuine philosophical battle over what American politics will look like over the next half-century.
We already know Sanders is in. We already know Sean Spicer of the RNC thinks the debate would be "phenomenal." We already know that a 17,600-person online poll taken on whether this debate should happen returned the following result: 83 percent in favor, 17 percent opposed. We already know $20 million is on the table from Bob Arum, meaning whatever happens at the debate Trump would be able to (honestly) claim that he'd more or less single-handedly raised more for women's charities in two hours than any person ever has. A boast of that magnitude is every presidential candidate's dream, but it'd be particularly useful to Trump, who according to pundits will lose in November, if he does, because of female voters. And all of that leaves aside the benefit of having two hours to attack Hillary Clinton before the largest television audience for a political debate ever. It would be the largest live audience, too.
On some level, Trump has to be kicking himself for listening to whichever idiot on his staff told him to back out of a California debate nearly everyone in the national media said would only help him. And yet if Sanders wins California, and Trump thereafter refuses to debate him at 7PM at RFK Stadium on June 11th, the only idiot left in the equation would be Mr. Trump himself. An opportunity like this only comes twice.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).
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