San­ders los­ing soft fight with Clin­ton

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank

— The 19th cen­tury had the Lin­coln-Dou­glas de­bates. The 20th cen­tury brought Kennedy-Nixon. And now we have just ex­pe­ri­enced a foren­sic mas­ter­piece to de­fine our times: the Clin­ton-San­ders De­bate De­bate.

This par­tic­u­lar rhetor­i­cal show­down was not a back-and-forth about is­sues, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, but an ar­gu­ment about whether to de­bate — and when, and where. It be­gan Jan. 30, when the Bernie San­ders pres­i­den­tial cam­paign chal­lenged Hil­lary Clin­ton to de­bate him in Brook­lyn on April 14.

Clin­ton sug­gested the Democrats in­stead de­bate in Penn­syl­va­nia, on Long Is­land or in Up­state New York. San­ders ac­cused Clin­ton of duck­ing.

Clin­ton pro­posed a New York de­bate on the evening of April 4 — but the San­ders cam­paign re­jected the idea as “lu­di­crous” be­cause the NCAA bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship would be later that night and Syra­cuse might be play­ing.

Clin­ton pro­posed they de­bate on ABC’s “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica” on April 15, but San­ders re­jected that, too.

Clin­ton even ac­qui­esced to the orig­i­nal San­ders de­mand and of­fered to de­bate April 14 in Brook­lyn. Sorry, San­ders said. He now had a rally sched­uled for that night — and the per­mit, his cam­paign said, had been hard to get.

The San­ders cam­paign coun­tered Sun­day by sug­gest­ing four other nights — one of them on a week­end, which it pre­vi­ously had said was un­ac­cept­able. Clin­ton sum­mar­ily re­jected those days.

Fi­nally, with New York’s April 19 pri­mary loom­ing, Mayor Bill de Bla­sio on Mon­day in­ter­vened: If San­ders would de­bate on April 14, de Bla­sio tweeted, “I will help you se­cure any per­mit you need to en­sure your NYC rally can hap­pen too.”

San­ders late Mon­day ac­qui­esced to de­bate on the very day and in the very place he pro­posed two months ago. He could rally an­other time at his pre­ferred venue, New York’s Wash­ing­ton Square Park — which, by co­in­ci­dence, was the site Satur­day of the In­ter­na­tional Pil­low Fight, in which hun­dreds of strangers play­fully thumped each other with feather-filled sacks.

This is oddly ap­pro­pri­ate, be­cause the Demo­cratic nom­i­nat­ing con­test gen­er­ally, like the Great De­bate De­bate, has come to re­sem­ble a pil­low fight — a lot of com­mo­tion and feath­ers fly­ing, but the blows don’t have much im­pact. San­ders long ago ceased to have a mean­ing­ful chance of win­ning the nom­i­na­tion; he would need to win 57 per­cent of the re­main­ing del­e­gates (or 67 per­cent, if you in­clude un­com­mit­ted su­perdel­e­gates), which, un­der the Democrats’ sys­tem of as­sign­ing del­e­gates in pro­por­tion to the vote, sim­ply isn’t go­ing to hap­pen.

And San­ders, to his credit, re­fuses to at­tack Clin­ton on her char­ac­ter, which he would have needed to do to have any chance of win­ning. He has stepped up his at­tacks on Clin­ton’s po­si­tions, but his par­ries, par­tic­u­larly com­pared with those in the Repub­li­can race, are gen­tle. San­ders there­fore can dis­rupt and an­noy Clin­ton on her way to the nom­i­na­tion, but he can’t beat her.

Top San­ders strate­gists ac­knowl­edged as much in a New York Times ar­ti­cle Mon­day by Patrick Healy and Yamiche Al­cin­dor. They were quoted speak­ing in the past tense and lament­ing what the writ­ers de­scribed as “missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to run an ag­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion in 2015 that would have pre­sented more of a chal­lenge to Mrs. Clin­ton.” San­ders strate­gist Tad Devine said the “cen­tral com­pli­ca­tion with Bernie is that he never wanted to cross into the zone of per­sonal at­tacks be­cause it would un­der­cut his brand.”

The Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee is wel­com­ing the San­ders show as a dis­trac­tion from the GOP can­di­dates’ frat­ri­cide. The RNC, in its daily me­dia sum­mary Mon­day, emailed a news ar­ti­cle re­port­ing that “Clin­ton is ‘show­ing flashes of frus­tra­tion’ as she strug­gles to put Bernie San­ders away.”

But what does San­ders get from this? The Great De­bate De­bate shows the fu­til­ity.

Early in the cam­paign, he and other Clin­ton chal­lengers jus­ti­fi­ably com­plained that the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee had lim­ited the num­ber of de­bates — and hid­den them on week­ends — to pro­tect Clin­ton. But even af­ter Clin­ton, re­spond­ing to a surg­ing San­ders, dropped her re­luc­tance to de­bate and agreed to par­tic­i­pate in a to­tal of 10, San­ders con­tin­ued to por­tray her as hid­ing.

Fri­day, he told the New York Daily News that Clin­ton wasn’t “will­ing to de­bate is­sues of im­por­tance to New York­ers” and that Clin­ton’s aides were “drag­ging their feet.”

But when Clin­ton said she would de­bate on the day San­ders had pro­posed, he looked like the dog that caught the car. His cam­paign protested that Clin­ton aides were be­ing “disin­gen­u­ous” be­cause they knew San­ders “al­ready had locked in a park per­mit for a ma­jor rally” that day.

The blow landed with the weight of goose down.

Dana Mil­bank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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