Rick Perry is apparently considering skipping some of the presidential debates. Ostensibly, this is because there are too many of them planned. Perry spokesperson Ray Sullivan told the Houston Chronicle that “given the fact that all the candidates need to spend time with actual voters in primary states, it seems like doing another dozen or 18 debates is not realistic.” While he emphasized that Perry will do more debates, and that “it is a function of time and energy, not the content of the debates,” it will be hard for Perry’s campaign to fight the impression that he’s not doing them because, well, he’s not very good at them.
Pundits are quick to claim this is a bad idea. “It’s like skipping the third quarter of a football game,” Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign manager told the Post’s Chris Cillizza. The move could make him look “unfit for the presidency,” others have warned. And of course, his opponents are criticizing the potential move, with Newt Gingrich questioning how Perry can be prepared to debate Obama if he can’t debate his Republican peers.
I’ll be the first to agree with Perry and his team that there are too many debates. We’re already at the point where the debates seem to be more repetitive than the commercial breaks in Iowa the day before the primary. If I hear one more exchange between candidates that dwells on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, I might start to think I’ve tuned into an infomercial.
But that’s precisely why I think skipping debates is a bad idea. Yes, I think this partly because Perry will risk looking like he’s trying to hide from his critics who have said he’s a poor debater, and miss out on winning over a national audience of voters just as more people start paying attention to the race.
What’s much more important, though, is that if he skips debates, Perry risks looking like a candidate who’s only in it for himself rather than one who contributes to critical national discussions about foreign policy, economic reforms and pressing social issues. The debates are one of the few opportunities—if not the only one—for all of the candidates to come together to debate ideas, potential policies and future reforms. If he skips out, others may too, making what are one of the few semi-substantive conversations between candidates more aimless than they already are.
The best ideas aren’t born fully formed out of one candidate’s head, or out of one campaign manager’s poll-approved research. They come out of tough debates and conflicting arguments that push the best policies forward. Real leaders engage in these discussions rather than shy away from them.
This is an awfully naïve view of the world, I realize. These days, debates have become platforms for repetitive talking points, carefully researched responses and platitudinous non-answers. Typically, and sadly, they are not opportunities to honestly debate the most pressing issues of our time in hopes of shaping and molding the best future policies.
But one can hope—or at least pretend, right? Perry can, but only if he actually shows up.
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