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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Clinton Can Respond to a Sanders-Trump Debate

If the Sanders-Trump debate becomes a solid go, Hillary Clinton may want to reconsider her decision not to debate Sanders before the California primary and give the OK to a three-way debate that allows her to take on Trump.
Not participating gives her adversaries a free ad with millions of viewers. Neither Trump nor Sanders will miss the opportunity to attack Clinton. That will be the central focus of the debate, knocking off the front-runner. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
If Clinton just criticizes the Trump-Sanders debate as a bad idea because it breaks precedent, and leaves it at that, she runs the risk of sounding like an ossified traditionalist who can’t cope with change. The spin doctors will pin the “sour grapes” and “scardy cat” labels on her, and in this crazy election year, it just might stick.
Clinton participating in the debate would be better, even though it has a downside — it gives Trump a forum to bash Democrats and perhaps gain some credibility just by being the sole Republican underdog fighting a tag-team. Of course he could likely as not make an even bigger fool of himself.
The upside is Clinton is a strong debater. She will have to debate Trump in the near-future anyway, and she is already well-prepared to win that contest. Sanders will lose some of the stature he would have gotten in a one-on-one debate just by having Clinton on the stage and she has already demonstrated that she can hold her own in debates with him.
The wisest course for Sen. Sanders is to urge that Clinton be included in any debate with Trump. In that way he can look fair-minded and respectful of voters, whether or not she agrees to be in the debate.
It may be that the time is ripening for debates across party lines before the primaries are over. The parties won’t like it much, but it would make for a more engaging primary season. It might have been interesting, if for example, there were a series of one-on-one debates between various presidential candidates, such as Kasich-O’Malley, Trump-Clinton or Sanders-Cruz and other combinations. Those debates earlier on could add clarity to the policy differences between the parties. Coming so late, it just looks like a hail-Mary.

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