The Sanders-Clinton Debate Flap, Explained

Or, "How to avoid a dumb two-day media flap: The super-easy guide for idiots."
Bernie Sanders wants more debates with Hillary Clinton, which makes sense because he's currently losing.
Bernie Sanders wants more debates with Hillary Clinton, which makes sense because he's currently losing.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

In the primary season thus far, the Democratic candidates have debated on nine occasions, some of which -- the ones not scheduled on weekends, or holidays, or staged within Schrodinger's Box -- you may have seen. There could be two more, one in April and one in May, but they're pending.

Bernie Sanders would very much like to debate Hillary Clinton in New York before that state's April 19 primary. Clinton, on the other hand, would prefer not to. But the Clinton campaign bungled its refusal, turning the situation into a Thing that has drawn criticism from all directions. So before we get too far down the Thinkpiece Road, let's demystify all of this with a little real talk.

During the primary season, the debate schedule is mostly decided by party elites who like to wrest control over the primary process and keep it from going off the rails. The efforts exerted by the GOP, in this regard, made a small amount of news last year. On the Democratic side, the decisions made about the debates have mostly centered on the aforementioned odd scheduling of those events and a follow-on critique from some in the Democratic Party that the debate schedule was largely designed to benefit Hillary Clinton, the party's leading institutional choice for the nomination.

That critique is absolutely true, by the way. Nevertheless, it is arguable that there have now been an adequate number of debates to discern the philosophical and policy differences between the two Democratic candidates. So, why have more?

It's simple really. There is only one type of candidate who demands additional debates: a candidate who is losing that election. This is axiomatic. It is equally axiomatic that there is only one type of candidate who declines the opportunity to debate: the candidate who is winning. Right now, Hillary Clinton is winning the primary and Bernie Sanders is losing. Both campaigns are, by and large, behaving precisely how you'd expect them to behave.

(Before ardent fans of these candidates get up in my grill, please note that I've used the terms "winning" and "losing," and not "won" and "lost.")

See, there is only one reason you'd want to keep debating after you've already debated nine times: If you're the candidate who's running behind, you can receive the benefit of a free media appearance, which could theoretically be leveraged to reverse your electoral fortunes. Otherwise, you wouldn't do it. Debating is an arduous and stressful process that you have to devote resources to -- resources that could otherwise be spent elsewhere. It's only candidacies that need to use a debate as a Hail Mary play that get strenuously worked up about demanding additional debates.

Candidates who are winning, or who have the inside track to winning, prefer to eliminate variables and keep a good thing going. They don't hand their opponents an opportunity to get a leg up. Offering additional debates when you are ahead is like a football team passing on first down with a lead late in the fourth quarter -- a stupid thing to do.

Back in the 2012 primary season, Newt Gingrich famously challenged President Barack Obama to debate him, in the baroque style of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He did this because he was losing, and also because he is a thorough-going egomaniac. Obama, as you might expect, refused Gingrich's request, correctly recognizing that debating Gingrich during the GOP primary that Gingrich was losing was an insane idea with absolutely zero upside for him. Gingrich's challenge was accepted by Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman, both of whom were also losing the race and desperate for a "game-changing" gimmick.

Of course, if you cast your mind back four years earlier, guess who you'll find saying, "I just believe that this is the most important job in the world, it's the toughest job in the world ... you should be willing to debate anytime, anywhere"? Just guess!

That's right! It was Hillary Clinton.

Is Clinton thus being hypocritical? I suppose it's a fair charge if today is your introduction to American politics. Otherwise, no. As stated above: Losing candidates demand additional debates and winning candidates decline them. At the time of this video, Clinton was losing the primary. She's not now. Her actions are therefore consistent. You might think it more sporting for her to participate in additional debates, but I'd call it the actions of an erratic and deeply weird campaign.

But having said that, the Clinton campaign's response to Sanders' demand for an additional debate in New York was erratic and deeply weird.

The challenge you face, if you find yourself up in a primary with your competitor nipping at you to agree to additional debates, is that when you decline to do so, your competitor is going to dine out a little on your refusal and categorize you as a coward. It's a bit of bitter fruit, but it's best to digest it quickly and skip to the part where your opponent's repeated demands start making them look desperate. The best way to dodge additional debates is simply to cite scheduling difficulties and move on, optimistically, to your own campaign events.

This is a feat that Clinton campaign strategist Joel Benenson almost managed in an interview with CNN's Kate Bolduan, before he totally cocked it all up. As Politico's Nick Gass reported:

CNN's Kate Bolduan then inquired why the campaign would not agree to debate in New York despite agreeing in January to more debates. Benenson responded, “Because we agreed to debates up to a certain point. We’re now out campaigning in these states.”

See? That's fine. Fine. The campaign fulfilled their obligation, and now has a busy schedule of campaigning. Nothing more needs to be said, just stick to that.

Unfortunately for Benenson, in an earlier part of the interview, Bolduan asked him to respond to "a Washington Post story in which Sanders' campaign discussed possible efforts to sharpen rhetoric against the former secretary of state." Benenson responded archly, noting that Sanders, who'd previously suggested that he'd not run negative ads, was now doing so and planning to continue.

So when Bolduan's follow-up question about Sanders' debate demand inevitably came, rather than stick to his "we're now out campaigning" talking point, Benenson attempted a hybrid response that recalled his critique of Sanders negative tone, and got it all wrong:

"What's the risk?" Bolduan asked.

“There’s no risk. She’s done very well in the debates. The debates have been very good, but Sen. Sanders doesn’t get to decide when we debate, particularly when he’s running a very negative campaign against us. Let’s see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we’ll talk about debates," Benenson said.

"So no chance of a New York debate?" Bolduan pressed.

“I didn’t say that," Benenson said. "I said we’re going to see what kind of tone he sets."

And that's just ridiculous. In the first place, there is absolutely no way that a change in Sanders' campaign tone might open the door to an additional New York debate. To suggest that the Sanders campaign could merit itself another debate if it would start behaving to the liking of the Clinton campaign is false on its face. Come on, man.

But more to the point, suggesting that it's Sanders' critical tone that's driving the Clinton campaign from agreeing to an additional debate might be the daffiest thing I've ever heard. What is a debate if not an opportunity for the debaters to raise criticisms of each other? For Clinton's campaign strategist to suggest that Sanders hasn't earned the right to criticize Clinton on the debate stage because he keeps criticizing her off the debate stage is a contention that demands mockery.

The truth is that the only one with a tonal problem here is Benenson, who easily could have set aside Sanders' request with a little optimistic talk about a successful campaign with a packed schedule of campaign stops. Instead, he boofed it, creating a completely needless news cycle distraction, and reminding us once again that the Clinton campaign team strangely treats the actual process of campaigning as an unnecessary hardship that's been somehow foisted upon them unfairly.


Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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