After Donald Trump backed out on an invitation to debate Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday, Sanders used a kind of Trumpian taunt to lure the mogul back into a matchup. On Real Time With Bill Maher Friday night, Sanders asked "tough guy" Trump to reconsider the debate. But canceling the debate might have been the smartest thing that Trump has done all election season... for the Democrats.
After Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton backed out of a debate with Sanders ahead of the California primary, Trump said that he could take her spot in the debate instead. Maybe to his surprise, Sanders accepted. But on Friday, after clenching the number of delegates for the Republican nomination, Trump decided that he was suddenly not interested in debating someone who — in Trump speak — is a loser. He said in a campaign statement on Friday:
Now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second-place finisher. As much as I want to debate Bernie Sanders -- and it would be an easy payday -- I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.
So suddenly Trump cares about what is and isn't inappropriate? OK. I guess this is the time to act "more presidential," anyway. But "second place-finisher" Sanders told Maher:
First he said he would do it. Then he said he wouldn’t. Then he said he would, then he said he wouldn’t do it. So I would hope that if he changed his mind four times in two days changing the fifth time (would be possible.) You know, Trump claims to be a real tough guy, pushes people around. Hey Donald, come on up and let's debate about the future of America.
Although Sanders is probably right that Trump could have another debate sea change, Trump's refusal to debate Sanders could actually help the Democratic party. A Sanders-Trump debate would be undeniably entertaining, but it would also continue to give credence to the idea that Sanders will be the Democrats pick for the general election. That would be good news for Sanders ahead of the California primary, but to what end? Currently, Clinton is only 73 delegates short of the required delegates to clench the Democratic nomination, and an upset in California wouldn't deliver Sanders the nomination, but it would throw the party into similar chaos as what we saw early in the GOP primary, and likely with Clinton still coming out on top.
That means that the longer we hold on to the idea that Sanders actually has a chance of winning the nomination, the longer that Clinton can't campaign full-throttle against Trump. It seemed like an almost tactical move for Trump to offer to debate Sanders, knowing that he would further divert attention away from Clinton and onto Sanders. No one is going to pay attention to Clinton when you could turn on an almost literal circus instead.
So, whether he realizes it or not, Trump actually did a great thing for Democrats, but at the cost of popcorn-worthy primetime TV.