After Hillary Clinton recently reneged on her promise to debate Bernie Sanders in California, it was assumed that the matter was put at rest. The Sanders campaign refused to back down. In February, when the six debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee under the leadership of former co-chair of Hillary 2008 Debbie Wasserman Schultz had elapsed, and Clinton was facing the prospect of a landslide defeat in the coming New Hampshire primary, she demanded another debate. The Sanders campaign had agreed to this on the condition that there be multiple additional debates, including in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and California.
The Clinton campaign offered the following as the pretext for declining to debate Sanders before the California primary:
“We believe that Hillary Clinton’s time is best spent campaigning and meeting directly with voters across California and preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”
However, the real reasons appear to be very different:
1. Clinton’s polling lead in California against Sanders has dwindled to nothing in recent weeks – 2 points, within the margin of error. On the other hand, Sanders is gaining momentum as he wins state after state. Clinton could lose whatever foothold she has by giving Sanders the exposure and opportunity to contrast himself with her at a debate.
2. There has been an unprecedented surge in voter registrations in the state. Nearly 2 million new voters have registered to vote, as Democrats or Independents. Both can vote in the primary on June 7. In addition, many hundreds of thousands have switched party affiliations to Democrat.
3. Sanders is polling far better against Donald Trump nationally (wins by 15%) than Clinton is (wins by 3%, within the margin of error), in the latest NBC poll. Worse, Clinton loses to Trump in other national polls, and in several swing state polls. The last time Clinton did better than Sanders against Trump was in August 2015. In recent weeks, Trump has only risen in the polls as his party has unified around him. Hillary Clinton was sure to be confronted on that at the debate, and Sanders would have been given a chance to argue that he is the best candidate to defeat Trump,
4. New revelations on her emails have surfaced, with the Inspector General report from the State Department declaring that Clinton willfully violated State Department rules in keeping a private server that she did not take permission for, for not handing over work-related emails to the State department where they constitutionally belong, despite the knowledge (as shown in the report) that there were hacking attempts on the server.
5. It has been a hundred days since Clinton said she would “look into” releasing the transcripts of her closed-door paid speeches to Wall Street firms (averaging $225,000 an hour). She would surely have been questioned on the whereabouts of the transcripts again.
6. After the rigging of the New York primary and the establishment’s bulldozing of the Nevada convention, Sanders would have been in no mood to be reverent or polite towards Hillary, especially since the only reason he is running for president in the first place is because he knew she was no progressive or populist. He would nail her on foreign military intervention, her ties to Wall Street, to the Crime Bill, to lobbyists and corporate donors, on not supporting a high enough minimum wage, on not being against fracking, on the Defense of Marriage Act, on ties to the National Rifle Association, and her SuperPAC funding.
7. It is difficult for Clinton to portray herself as a progressive against a candidate with more honest-and-trustworthy rating, integrity and a better record than hers — this late into the race when she plans a pivot to the centre as soon as the primary is up — when progressivism is all that the Democratic and Independent base demands. She is used to being up against Republicans or other corporate establishment Democrats — people compared to whom she could be more progressive on one issue but less on another — one would champion healthcare, the other would champion gun regulations. This time around, Clinton has been forced by Sanders to offer a vision that is as comparatively broad as Sanders’ overhaul message - one that she does not believe in and nor will she usher.
8. What suits Clinton the most is Trump being portrayed as the greatest threat. The longer the scrutiny of her record and comparison to Sanders continues, the more voters are discontent with settling for Hillary as the “lesser evil”. She could not have possibly imagined having to defend her actions to a growing, disapproving liberal base, when she first announced her run. She had expected to be welcomed to lead the charge against the Republicans in the general election. Her run has become one, of her trying to convince voters that she is not unsuitable for the position.
The author is a research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre For Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.