The impact of the Great Debate Debate

The Democratic race resembles a pillow fight – lots of commotion but not many impactful blows.
The Democratic race resembles a pillow fight – lots of commotion but not many impactful blows. AP

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 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 of an April 14 debate in Brooklyn. But Sanders’ campaign said he now had a rally scheduled for that night and the permit had been hard to get.

The Sanders campaign countered Sunday by suggesting four other nights. Clinton rejected those days.

With New York’s April 19 primary looming, Mayor Bill de Blasio intervened Monday: 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 the debate. 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.

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.

Top Sanders strategists acknowledged as much in a New York Times article Monday.

The Republican National Committee is welcoming the Sanders show as a distraction from the GOP candidates’ fratricide.

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 agreed to participate in 10 debates, 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.

Twitter: @Milbank.