The testy debate negotiations between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns spilled out into the open on Saturday, with each side accusing the other of political gamesmanship and making unreasonable demands.
Behind closed doors, both camps have been hotly disputing where and when to host a debate before the New York primary on April 19. On Saturday the fight went public.
“The Sanders campaign needs to stop with the games,” Clinton national press secretary Brian Fallon said in a public statement Saturday morning. “The voters of New York deserve better.”
A few minutes later, Sanders campaign fired back with a public statement of its own. “The people of New York and America deserve to see and hear a debate on the important issues facing the state and country,” said Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs.
The exchange was a reflection of rising tensions between the two campaigns. With distrust between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns high in recent months, the teams are negotiating the debate schedule strictly through a third party at the DNC, instead of dealing directly.
Sanders’ top aides have felt repeatedly belittled by the Clinton campaign since the debate schedule was first decided last year, particularly in February, when they said they were unfairly forced into holding a New Hampshire debate against Clinton outside the schedule set by the Democratic Party.
The Vermont Senator himself is said to be personally embittered by the debate negotiations.
“We didn’t like the way debates had been scheduled in the first place,” said a Sanders aide. “But the most outrageous thing about what the Clinton campaign did is when it suited their interests they decided to change the rules.”
The Clinton team, on the other hand, has been frustrated with what they see as the Sanders’ campaign stubbornness and use of the debate schedule to unfairly characterize Clinton.
Clinton’s team has been led by veteran consultant Charlie Baker and campaign chairman John Podesta. Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic consultant, is point person for the Sanders campaign.
The two campaigns left New Hampshire in early February with a tentative agreement to debate three more times, including once in Flint, Michigan, and another in California in May.
Since then, the negotiations have been a tangled mess of failed proposals, stonewalling and rejections from both camps. In recent days and weeks, a wide variety of proposals have been thrown out, rejected, or kept on the table by both sides.
The Sanders campaign has repeatedly pushed for a debate in Brooklyn, where the Vermont Senator was born and raised, an area they see as favorable ground for him, even though Clinton’s campaign is based there. The New York City borough has a large population of liberal Democrats and young voters, many of them likely to favor Sanders, and a debate would be a symbolic homecoming for him.
Clinton, meanwhile, has long resisted the idea of debating in New York. In March, Clinton aides were in favor of holding a debate in Pennsylvania, according to several sources familiar with the debate negotiations.
For weeks in March, both parties found reasons to delay, sources said. Clinton aides wanted to hold out in the hopes that they could marginalize Sanders in the primary with a series of defeats and not have to debate him. Sanders’ staff, meanwhile, was not eager to schedule debates either, as the issue helps galvanize supporters.
But Sanders continued to post strong enough performances in March and raise enough money, winning landslide victories in western states like Washington and Alaska, even while lagging badly behind Clinton in the overall popular vote.
Then, in the last 10 days, Clinton aides expressed willingness to hold a New York debate but have continued to prefer a debate upstate, instead of Brooklyn. However, the Clinton campaign was preparing behind the scenes for a potential Brooklyn debate, eyeing Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood as a possibility.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ event schedule was filling up, with Sanders scheduling high-profile rallies at major locations throughout the city, including in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, and some outdoors. Sanders received a difficult-to-obtain permit for a high-profile rally in a coveted Manhattan space on the evening of April 14 which has yet to be publicly announced.
The Clinton campaign pushed for an April 4 date at Hofstra University sponsored by the local station NY 1, but Sanders aides mocked that proposal, saying it was the same date as an NCAA tournament game. “The idea that they want a debate in New York on a night of the NCAA finals—with Syracuse in the tournament no less—is ludicrous,” said Briggs in a statement.
The Sanders campaign proposed April 13 as a possible debate date, sources confirmed.
The Clinton campaign did not accept that date and proposed either an April 14 date or a debate on ABC’s Good Morning America on April 15. Sanders and Clinton aides both agreed to the proposition of a debate on the morning show, but not to a specific date.
Then Sanders aides declined to hold a debate on April 14 or 15, citing its rally on April 14.
In a statement, the Clinton campaign’s Fallon criticized Sanders’ refusal. “Both offers for the night of April 14 and the morning of April 15 still remain. The Sanders campaign needs to stop using the New York primary as a playground for political games and negative attacks against Hillary Clinton,” Fallon said.
Despite their earlier insistence on a weekday debate, Sanders has now proposed a debate early on Sunday, April 17, sources said, because of a rally tentatively scheduled later that night.
A Sanders spokesman said that the campaign favored the debate later on Sunday, but did not address the scheduling conflict.
Whenever the debate is held, it’s unlikely that it will be as contentious as the debate between the campaigns about when to hold it.