When a credible candidate for significant political office makes a statement or adopts a strategy that seems obviously counterintuitive, criticism will shower down first, followed by a wave of wait-maybe-this-is-brilliant rebuttals. Byron York offers a bit of the latter (as well as some of the former) in a thoughtful piece that poses the question of whether Perry’s announcement that he might not attend future debates isn’t just self-serving, but actually a rational strategy that other Republicans should adopt:
Until a few weeks ago, there seemed to be lots of time for debating. The Iowa caucuses were set for Feb. 6, with the other contests after that. Then Florida upended the Republican schedule, setting its primary Jan. 31 and forcing the early contests to move to earlier dates. The Iowa caucuses will now be Jan. 3. More than a month of campaign time has been lost; debates that were in the planning stages have been squeezed into a smaller period of time.
The sheer number of debates raises the question of diminishing returns. The early debates helped introduce the candidates to the Republican primary electorate. Later debates will help voters in critical states make their final decisions. But the next few debates, while they might be the occasion for a major gaffe or gotcha, have little purpose.
What would the candidates do if they weren’t debating so much? They’d campaign more. That’s obviously what Perry wants to do. Compare his weak performance on the debate stage with his mastery of hands-on, one-on-one campaigning, and its easy to understand why.
But fewer debates would probably benefit the other candidates, too. Voters in the early states really do pay close personal attention to candidates, and word gets around if a candidate does well on the stump. Of course, for that to happen, the candidate has to actually be on the stump.
I’m not so sold on the idea that fewer debates would help the other candidates — save one. So far, the debates have been the springboard for the Not-Romney candidates to launch into contention to be Mitt Romney’s main challenger. We’ve seen Michele Bachmann’s polling spike because of her early debate performances, followed by Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich appears to be gaining some ground thanks to his consistently good debate performances (and the weaknesses of the other Not-Romneys). Assuming that there is still room for another candidate or two to quickly ascend — maybe Rick Santorum — the only platform available for that thunderbolt opportunity would be a nationally televised debate. Eliminating debates helps Romney by keeping any of his opponents from gaining momentum, especially in Iowa or South Carolina.
Besides, retail campaigning has not been overly interrupted by these debates. For the most part, they have taken place in early primary/caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida — places where candidates are already campaigning anyway. (Tellingly, a potential Minnesota debate got scotched, even though the RNC chair showed up for the Midwestern Leadership Conference and the leadership from five state parties attended it; Minnesota won’t caucus until February.) The debates allow for both retail, personal politicking as well as national exposure, which benefits the less-well-known candidates. If Cain hadn’t participated in his seventh debate, he never would have broken out of the second tier at the end of September. That built considerable credibility and excitement for Cain’s retail politicking, especially in Iowa.
The formats of the debates are terrible, of course, but they have always been terrible. Anyone expecting a coherent and nuanced policy explanation in 60 seconds, or in a 30-second rebuttal, is in for crushing disappointment. The problem for most sponsors is figuring out how to get seven, eight, or nine people on a stage in 90 minutes or two hours to discuss a wide range of topics. Instead, the early debates should put two candidates (chosen by lot) at a time for 30 minutes each to discuss a specific policy area, give each 10 minutes to speak and 5 minutes to rebut, while the moderator simply keeps track of the time. That would allow voters to see how candidates approach policy rather than who can best deliver a zinger.
In the end, though, the debates show who is most prepared to debate in the general election, a point made by both Gingrich and Santorum as they blast Perry:
In a question-and answer-session with reporters following an education forum, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both suggested it is a sign of weakness for Perry to take a pass on some future debates. At least 10 have been scheduled between now and the end of January.
“I’d never skip a debate. I’d never skip the opportunity to let the American public know what I think about these issues,” Santorum said. “I’m all about digging deeper and people getting to know the candidates.”
Gingrich suggested that Perry’s reluctance raises questions about his fitness for the fall campaign. “I don’t see how somebody can say that they can’t debate Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul, but they’ll be ready to debate Barack Obama,” he said. “I think Governor Perry would find it an enormous mistake to not go to the debate and I think that frankly he’d look pretty silly.”
While it’s a good impulse to check one’s assumptions and carefully consider political strategy, Perry’s declaration on debates doesn’t pass the laugh test even on second thought. It’s equivalent to an admission that he’s simply not up to the task of engaging in an extemporaneous format, and that’s not a confidence builder regardless of what one thinks of the debates.